While the federal life is great, sometimes being a contractor to the government is the prime place to be. When you get right down to it, this moving back and forth between government and contractor roles is happening all of the time. Neither role holds undisputed benefits over the other; however, each has positives and negatives to consider. Personally, my strengths in dealing with people have helped me understand others and their motivations. Whether we are dealing with government or contractor personnel, we are still dealing with people. This human factor plays a big part in understanding the positives and negatives of government and contracting jobs.

3 Reasons that show mission is not the primary focus

We have government agencies because there are missions that we need to perform as a nation. The key word here is mission. Without a mission, the agency has no reason to exist. Mission-focused people within the government often report to people who are more concerned with self-promotion. No, it is not an endemic problem, but it is so common that if I hear that someone is leaving the government, I question them to see if this is why. It happens a lot. Here are some contributing factors:

1. Office Politics

Agencies have become more political. Not necessarily in terms of national politics, but just within an agency or a department. Consider two bright GS-12’s looking for promotion to GS-13. One is extremely gifted technically, and the other is extremely gifted politically. Guess who gets the promotion. Political connections and considerations can be highly valued over what is best for the mission. While it doesn’t happen all the time, it does happen.

2. A, B, C, Players

One of my favorite quotes that explains why people act how they do in professional settings is this one: “A players hire A players. B players hire C players.” When I mentioned this quote to a long-time government manager friend, she agreed with it, then stated, “And I would rather have the C player than the B player. At least the C player will work hard.” This is a problem in both government and contractor environments because at the heart of it, this is a human nature problem. How do you fix it? You put mission-focused managers in positions of authority. A mission-focused leader does not care about the color of your badge or protecting turf, or even the next promotion. They welcome anyone, preferably A-players, who help them advance the mission.

3. Post 9-11 Adjustments

Massive post 9-11 Intelligence Community growth ballooned agency and government department sizes. There have been some great government hires in the last 20 years. However,  rapid growth can dilute agencies that were comprised of heavily vetted skills and personalities. On the flip side, if we ever have a similarly rapid reduction in size, we will lose a lot of good people. Rapidity is antithetical to a reasoned, planned approach. Whether growing or shrinking, the goal should always be to place accomplishing the mission as the highest priority.

However, we need to ensure that a mission-first focus is instilled in each generation that comes to work for the government. If we ever lose the mission focus, then why are we even here? A lot of time and money is being invested in cyber training, and rightly so. But are we training our personnel in how to be mission focused? Really good mission-focused technicians and engineers eventually become mission-focused managers, branch chiefs, and department heads. They stay in service because they care about the mission. If they see too many examples of decisions that are more political than mission-oriented, they get discouraged and will leave.

Find What Works For You

Just like any job change, the reasons for the change can vary from job content to opportunities, location or benefits. If your government department does not have what you are looking for, a contractor might be the ticket for your preferred job content, benefits, or location. There are a lot more contracting companies than there are government agencies and departments, so it stands to reason that contractors will have more varied opportunities and benefits.

Depending on your circumstances, your pay may increase by leaving or going to a government job. Technical skills are typically more valued in terms of pay by contractors. This may be because the laws of supply and demand are more closely recognized by the contractor side, while the government may be forced to adhere to more rigid pay bands. The government has been looking at this issue and some agencies have put schemes in place to address the loss of their technical workforce with varying degrees of success.

HUman Factor is Important

The way people are treated either furthers or hurts the mission. And depending on government, contractor, and military relations, it can impact what role candidates prefer to fill later in their career. Contractors may choose to avoid federal agency support depending on prior treatment. Having worked in both government IT and mission areas, I have witnessed power struggles and find that it happens more often when the organization I support is further from the mission. It is as if in lacking a mission, the focus becomes more about growing an organization or budget at the expense of brother/sister organizations. This in turn brings about division and self-promotion.  Contrast this with a mission manager who does not care who you are as long as you are helping to advance the mission. This type of manager does not tolerate attitudes or actions that distract from achieving the mission. I suspect that this is just another of those human nature things.

Keys to Success

Within the IC, we all deal with the categories of military, contractor and government. When all three work in harmony to prosecute a mission, it is a beautiful thing. Many of us will work in two or even all three of the categories at different times of our career. If you are in the military and looking to get out, you may have a decision to make as to which way to go. There really are positives and negatives associated with either choice, government or contractor. Positives will keep you on a job, in an agency, or on a mission. Negatives will risk pushing people away. In my experience, the absolute best way to keep people working together and not against each other is to make sure that everyone has the same goal. Make your mission the goal of everyone who supports your organization and get rid of people that are detrimental to this goal. You will have less turnover, more satisfied personnel, and accomplishments that are the highlights of a great career.

So, which one is better? No matter what you do, focus on the mission as the top priority.

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Todd Keys is a Program Manager at Cantada, Inc. He has been in the intelligence Community for 30 years, as a member of the military (USAF), and as a contractor for top 100, top 10, and small business federal defense contractors. He has held multiple roles, CONUS and OCONUS, ranging from technician to executive, providing site O&M, system administration, engineering, supervision, contract management, and Capture/BD for the DoD and multiple intelligence agencies.