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An acquaintance of mine — let’s call this person “Pat” — works in a U.S. government agency as a contractor.  In theory, this is a good job for Pat: Pat is doing interesting, useful, and creative work, in Pat’s field, and getting decently paid for it.  In theory.  Unfortunately, reality is like a rude dinner guest, constantly interrupting the always-pleasant theory, ruining the best-laid plans, and generally making everyone uncomfortable.

The problem is that Pat does not work directly for the U.S. government.  Pat is an independent contractor, an individual who works for a company; and, in turn, that company is a sub-contractor to another private company that holds the actual contract.  So Pat is a sub-sub-contractor.  Not only that: for the sake of “efficiency”, the agency for whom Pat works turned over all responsibility, budget, and control over this contract to another federal agency, one over which it has no authority.

So, every day, Pat goes to work for Agency A.  Pat interacts with Agency A employees, some very highly placed, and Pat’s work has direct impact on Agency A’s mission.

But every month, Pat waits to get paid for the work done the previous month . . . which payment is not made until the sub-contractor receives the funds from the contractor . . . which does not happen until the contractor receives the funds from Agency B, to whom responsibility for the contract was passed.  Agency A transferred all the funding for this contract up front, many months ago . . . but for some indeterminate reason, Agency B can’t seem to process the paperwork needed to pay the contractor regularly.  End result: Pat (and dozens of other sub-sub-contractors in Pat’s position) work hard and regularly, but get paid hardly and irregularly.  Apparently some have gone months without a paycheck.

Understandably, this drives Pat up the wall.  Pat is an extremely talented and conscientious professional who devotes enormous time and energy to the job (more than many of the agency’s own civil servants . . . but that’s a story for another time), and Pat expects to be treated as a professional in turn.  To not know when or if you are going to get paid each month is ludicrous. 

But Pat has no leverage in this situation to force a resolution.  Pat’s Agency A bosses are sympathetic, but they have no authority over Agency B.  Pat’s sub-contractor is apologetic, but has no direct relationship with Agency B.  And the contractor is just a middleman, with no resources committed to this particular contract; it will be content as long as it gets paid eventually, so it has no motive to confront Agency B every month.

It’s an insane situation that reinforces a whole bunch of awful stereotypes about government inefficiency and incompetence (ironically, of course, the incompetent people aren’t the ones not getting paid), and it demonstrates how accountability is not just a worthy aspiration goal, but a vital component to a healthy work environment.  The dispersion of responsibility for Pat’s contract among so many actors means that no one with any power or motivation can hold the agency with fiscal responsibility accountable for its inactions.  Pat and Pat’s fellow sub-sub-contractors are virtually helpless in this situation, and helplessness is one of the most deadly of all oppressive working conditions.

In whatever job you take on — as employee, contractor, or even volunteer — make sure that there is someone who can be held accountable for every element of the position that is important to you.