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OMB Says 'Work From Home.' But Some Defense Contracts Say Workers Can't

Industry association pushes for the administration to issue guidance for flexibility and greater use of contractors during the coronavirus pandemic.

This week the Office of Management and Budget issued a memo asking federal agencies and departments to offer “maximum telework flexibilities” to eligible employees. A top representative for the federal services industry says it won’t do much good for contractors—or public health—if contracting officers aren’t specifically told to modify the relevant legal agreements.   

“If an agency says, 'Everybody go home and telework,' and the contractors have contracts that say you can't telework, you have to be at the agency facility in order to do your job. You have a disconnect right away,” David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, told Nextgov.

Berteau said the contractor has to follow the contract unless their contracting officer gives guidance to the contrary.

“The way to fix that is not with something issued by the president,” he said. “The way to fix it is you have to modify the contract.”

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Studies have shown a majority of the federal workforce is made up of private contractors, and Berteau said the COVID-19 outbreak raises the stakes in showing why the government should more fully embrace that segment, in general. 

“Part of the challenge here is we haven't done anything like this at the scale we're trying to do it and you need to sort of test these things out and make sure they work,” he said. “I think it's critically important to America that the government continue to operate and function as well as possible, not just for those parts of the government that are dealing with the coronavirus, but for the government that helps America run itself.”

Berteau said there are tens of thousands of contracting officers who, in his experience, “benefit from broad guidance from the top” urging them to recognize the responsibilities they have to “achieve broad objectives like ‘keep the government operating.’”

With teleworking, he said that should include modifying contracts to give contractors the necessary capabilities.

“That might mean more bandwidth, it might mean laptops, it might mean access to government data that you typically don't get remotely,” he said. “It might mean a lot of different things.”

Zooming out, asked about the strain increased telework due to coronavirus is putting on federal networks, Berteau said contractors could help there too.

“As we run into problems, we need to have a rapid capability to overcome those problems,” he said, “whether it's expanding bandwidth, whether it's reallocating bandwidth, whether it's putting more cell towers in so you don't get the 'all circuits are busy,' and I think contractors provide the surge capacity to do that in a way that is absolutely essential and needs to be taken full advantage of.”

As the government looks to manage the public health crisis, government watchdogs are wary of broad directives to spend.

"During emergencies when urgent need forces the federal government to spend more money at faster rates, concerns of possible waste, fraud or abuse increase significantly,” Sean Moulton, senior policy analyst at the Project on Government Oversight, told Nextgov.

“We need requirements that will track and report where every dollar goes and how it is used during this crisis,” Moulton said. “Only through complete accountability can the public be assured that their tax dollars are being well used in this time of great need.”

Berteau said he is optimistic the U.S. would “figure out a way to get through this” and returned to the role of the contracting officers.

“Coronavirus, we could look at as a really big countrywide, worldwide test,” he said. “We will only pass that test if we take advantage of everything that contractors have to offer. And in order to do that, we need to mobilize the contracting officers and say 'it's your job to make sure that we take full advantage of everything contractors have to offer.’” 

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