Contractors as a Poor Alternative to Leadership

Public sector leaders often outsource leadership to contractors which leads to more problems. How can this be avoided?

Leadership is an essential aspect of any successful organization, be it in the public or private sector. It involves providing guidance, direction, and motivation to a group of people to achieve a common goal.

Unfortunately, leaders at all levels in the public sector often avoid leadership by farming out critical tasks to paid contractors, which can result in inefficiencies, lack of progress, and low morale among employees. Let’s face it, it is a heck of a lot easier to demand additional staff from a contractor or modify the scope of a contract than it is to train, supervise or reprimand a federal staff member, isn’t it? But easier is not what this is about. It’s about leadership.

Why Do Public Sector Leaders Avoid Leadership?

Fear of Accountability

One of the reasons why leaders in the public sector often avoid leadership is the fear of accountability. This fear of accountability can make leaders hesitant to make decisions or act, as they may be more focused on avoiding blame than on achieving positive outcomes.

Great organizations are accountable, everybody within the organization is accountable to a specified result. Accountability is a shield against failure. Leadership demands accountability, accountability assures success.

Bureaucracy and Politics

Another reason why public sector leaders may avoid leadership is the complex bureaucracy and politics that often characterize these organizations. With so many stakeholders, competing interests, and layers of bureaucracy, it can be difficult to make timely decisions and act.

Leaders may be hesitant to take on this complexity, as it can lead to frustration, delays, and potential conflicts. Moreover, the public sector often has a culture of risk-aversion, where leaders may be more concerned about maintaining the status quo rather than taking bold action. This can result in stagnation, lack of innovation, and missed opportunities. Leaders may avoid leadership because they fear the potential consequences of taking risks and trying new approaches.

The consequences of leaders avoiding leadership in the public sector can be severe. Without strong leadership, organizations can become inefficient, ineffective, and unresponsive to the needs of their stakeholders. This can lead to low morale and turnover among employees.

To address this, it is important to create a culture that encourages and rewards leadership. This can involve training and support for leaders, setting clear expectations for their roles and responsibilities, and creating a safe environment where leaders feel empowered to take risks and make decisions. Leaders must also be held accountable for their actions, but this accountability should be balanced with a recognition of the challenges and complexities they face.

What Are the Risks of Using Contractors to Fill Voids in Leadership?

Public sector organizations rely on a skilled and dedicated workforce to carry out their missions, providing essential services to citizens and communities. However, with many public sector leaders avoiding leadership and the complex human interactions that go with it, there is a growing trend among public sector managers to exclude their staff members from critical work assignments and instead assign these tasks to paid contractors. This practice poses significant risks to public sector organizations, their employees, and the public they serve.

Loss of Institutional Knowledge

One of the primary risks of excluding public sector staff members from work assignments is the loss of institutional knowledge and expertise. Public sector employees typically have a deep understanding of the organization’s operations, policies, and procedures, making them valuable assets in carrying out critical work assignments. When public sector managers exclude these employees from such assignments, they risk losing this institutional knowledge, leading to a decline in the quality and effectiveness of services provided.

Increased Costs

Another risk of relying on paid contractors to carry out critical work assignments is the potential for increased costs. Contracting out work to external contractors can be expensive, often requiring significant funds to pay for their services. This can strain public sector budgets, leading to cuts in other areas and potentially reducing the overall quality and effectiveness.

Lack of Accountability

Relying on paid contractors can create a lack of accountability and transparency in public sector operations. Contractors may not be subject to the same ethical and legal standards as public sector employees, and their work may not be subject to the same level of oversight and scrutiny. This can create an environment in which public sector managers are less accountable, potentially leading to inefficiencies, waste, and abuse.

Impact on Morale

Excluding public sector staff members from work assignments and relying on paid contractors can also have negative effects on employee morale and job satisfaction. Public sector employees may feel undervalued and excluded from critical work assignments, leading to low morale, reduced motivation, and poor job satisfaction. This can lead to increased turnover.

Culture of Dependency

Finally, relying on paid contractors can create a culture of dependency on external providers, making it difficult for public sector organizations to build and maintain their internal capacity. Public sector managers must prioritize building and maintaining their internal capacity, ensuring that they have the skills, expertise, and resources needed to carry out their missions effectively.

How Can Public Sector Leaders Avoid These Risks?

Excluding public sector staff members from work assignments and relying on paid contractors to perform critical tasks carries significant risks that can impact service delivery, employee morale, and accountability. To avoid these risks, public sector managers must prioritize the recruitment, training, and development of public sector employees, and ensure that they are given the tools and opportunities to contribute to critical tasks and decision-making processes.

The tendency of leaders at all levels in the public sector to avoid leadership is a significant challenge and risk that must be addressed to ensure the effectiveness and success of public sector organizations by understanding the reasons behind this tendency and taking steps to create a culture that encourages and rewards effective leadership. Leadership is not always a comfortable fit, and the truth is that most of us would rather not lead, but at a certain level (GS-14, GS-15, SES (Senior Executive Service)), it must be part of the position description (PD) and become a core responsibility. Being the senior clerk or analyst is not the same thing as being a leader or leadership. Eliminating all the challenges that human beings bring by hiring paid contractors is something closer to avoidance than it is to leadership.

Paid contractors are an available resource to support and enhance the efforts of our organizations and our staff. They are not there to replace our staff members, nor to help our leaders avoid leadership.

From the mid-1980s through at least 2022, the number of Federal, Military, Postal and Grants employees has remained relatively stable and flat, while the number of Contract employees has increased significantly. This by itself is not a bad thing, but when Federal employees are being shelved and by-passed so that Federal managers and leaders can avoid the pain and strain of leadership, something has gone awry. This is not a criticism of contractors; it is a call for leadership.

As odd a concept as it might appear, leaders need to lead, and it is what your staff are asking for. 

Try leadership, you might be surprised at the result.

About the Author

Brian Canning recently retired from the National Institutes of Health (DHHS) as a Change Management Specialist in addition to 30 years in the automotive repair industry with many senior leadership positions. He has been a business consultant and leadership coach and has over 70 articles published, mostly on leadership and business process.