Significant, high-quality work has been written elsewhere in this forum about (1) getting into management consulting, (2) working in US Policy, (3) Policy Think Tanks, (4) Executive Branch Appointments, (5) Alternatives to management consulting, (6) maximizing your impact as a consultant, and (7) Exiting management consulting for other opportunities.
Because I have not found any EA forum articles on working as a public sector consultant, I thought to write-up my experience as one. This work seems rare in EA but could be a good fit for some people.
At EAGx Boston this past week many people asked me what it meant when I said I was a “federal contractor.” I also did not meet any others at the conference, our movement’s largest to date. (If I missed you, I am sorry! Please get in touch 😊)
The purpose of this article:
I’ll describe how to get into the field and what you can get out of it, including the amount of good I think you can do in this space.
I am sharing my experiences, which are inherently anecdotal and personal, and not evidence driven. Please see this work as a qualitative profile with which my work colleagues might disagree on the margins. Consulting is a broad and poorly defined field, so each consultant will give you entirely different answers. I will try to provide some structure and background to reduce the confusion. I try to give indicator words rather than speaking in absolutes (“may” rather than “must).
Article summary and key takeaways:
I would rate public sector consulting, in the aggregate, as mediocre in terms of expected effective altruism impact, and high in terms of career capital development. I think these roles have more impact than their private sector equivalent, but less career capital training to offer. If you can score good projects, you can learn more and do more good than in other projects. Your burnout rate is slightly lower than in business consulting, which is to say, still high. This career path is not for those with narrow windows of tolerance due to unfortunate work cultures, although it’s getting better. Public sector consultants are often not consultants, but contractors, which has implications for the type of work that gets done.
If there’s interest in learning more about this line of work, such as through more FAQs or detail on individual lines, or just great demand for this resource generally, I am happy to invest more time in this article. Please engage with it by commenting and pointing out mistakes.
- Projects and Operations
- How the Consulting Process Works
- But what, exactly, are consultants doing every day?
- Consulting in the Public Sector
Frequently Asked Questions:
- How is federal contracting different from consulting for businesses or nonprofits?
- What is staff augmentation and why do federal contractors do it?
- What is the difference in career capital between “true consultants” and “staff augmentation work?”
- How is working as a federal contractor different from working as a federal employee?
- What is the day-to-day in the life of a federal contractor like?
- How do you get into federal contracting?
- What is the value of federal contracting for effective altruism?
- What specific "skills" can you gain as a federal contractor or management consultant?
- What are the ideal profiles of an effective altruist as a federal contractor?
- What are some indicators that this type of work is not for you?
- What are some resources to read? What companies do federal contracting?
Consulting refers to the facilitative process, by which someone asks critical questions that facilitate the development of fresh perspectives about topics. Consultants bring expertise in a subject area (say, AI or the climate) or a skill area (say, marketing or project management). An organization employs an external consulting firm when they realize they need help with a problem, resulting from a lack of skill, knowledge, or bandwidth to address it. I use the word “organization” in the broadest possible sense, because a consultant might work with a non-profit, a business, a government, an NGO, etc. An organization is a system of individuals whose efforts synergize to generate value.
Consultants are contractors because they normally sign a contract (statement of work) with clients that specifies what needs doing (scope), how long the work lasts (schedule) and how much the work will cost the client (budget). Sometimes organizations have internal consultants who are “on call” to address specific issues throughout the organization; they essentially do the same work as an external consultant, but on a different type of contract.
Projects and Operations:
Consulting work is temporary. It is a type of project; a project is a temporary endeavor that creates value within an organization or allows that organization to produce more value at a faster/more efficient pace. Projects are the opposite of operations, which are the non-temporary, enduring activities an organization undertakes to create its products and services. Projects improve critical operations and eliminate wasteful ones.
Consultants generally “rotate” to another organization or contract once their project ends, rather than staying at the same organization throughout their employment.
How the Consulting Process Works:
Generally, the consultant asks their questions, records answers, and conducts analysis of interviews, surveys, and records to gain a high-level understanding of how the organization operates. They’ll work with other consultants at their firm (small teams of generalized specialists), to articulate the organization’s challenges and design better systems. Finally, they’ll submit deliverables (documents, approaches, timelines, tools, software) and recommendations for further action (which might lead to additional statements of work).
Clients often do not know exactly what problems they have – they suffer from “unknown unknowns.” As they are busily developing their products and services and may not have the time, energy, or awareness to accurately and consistently evaluate their organizational performance.
For these reasons, a consultant team that can take an outside view of the organization can bring to light new problems and recommendations for approaching them. To that end, consultants spend much of their time on analytical work, which includes the processes and technologies the organization uses (and when those processes are inefficient).
This work also includes working with clients’ emotions – where is the organization functioning well, and where are there disputes and reservations about its direction? Emotional analysis is not necessarily judgmental, but an awareness of feelings of joy and burnout, and their distribution across the organization, can brings to light insights unknown to the organization if communicated delicately.
But what, exactly, are consultants doing every day?
Every consultant will give you a different answer. In my area of expertise, it means hosting conversations in Microsoft Teams to facilitate problem-solving and design thinking sessions, diagramming processes in Microsoft Visio, collecting and analyzing data in Excel, developing executive-ready presentations that recommend decisions in PowerPoint, and writing briefs in Word. That’s my schtick. Others might make more use of R, STATA, or Adobe Illustrator to accomplish similar ends. This work is almost entirely remote and makes use of standard software. I also send a lot of emails. Probably too many emails.
Consulting in the Public Sector:
When I say “federal,” I refer to the federal government of the United States, and the federal agencies that hire consultants. A broader term is “public sector consultants” – that would include federal agencies, Congress, state governments, and municipalities. My experience is in the United States, so I will use these terms, but my firm and many others operate in the public sectors of most countries.
I have consulted or contracted mainly in the federal space, at various agencies, including the Forest Service, Federal Student Aid, Health and Human Services, the General Services Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Justice, and the Agency for International Development. Each has their own institutional culture and way of doing things, of course, but I believe the similarities are far greater than the differences. The same laws apply, even if subordinate policies differ on the margin. I have also consulted in the non-profit and for-profit spaces, so I feel confident speaking about the range of options, circa 2022.
Frequently Asked Questions:
With these definitions out of the way, I will organize this article to answer frequently asked questions about this type of work.
How is federal contracting different from consulting for businesses or nonprofits?
First, laws, regulations, and the realities of the expansive federal bureaucracy change many of the dimensions of consulting work.
- For various reasons, many consulting firms simply do not touch public sector opportunities. The Federal Acquisitions Regulation (FAR) governs what is needed for a company to bid by writing a proposal in response to an agency’s request for proposal (RFP).
- Often, you must have demonstrated past experience in solving a particular problem, which creates a chicken and egg issue for a consulting company – how do you gain experience if you aren’t allowed to do the work to gain experience?
- Companies often work together to meet all of the government’s requirements on the same proposal, but these “teaming agreements” often create more politics and complexities.
- And then, there are more strict rules on interactions – it’s illegal to give federal employees gifts, so of course we do not do it. In business consulting, by contrast, it’s not unusual to wine and dine your client. The sort of hanging out at golf courses and drinking champagne while you schmooze to make business deals is muted if at all existent in this line of work, because the company that wins the work tends to do it on the basis of providing the right services at the right price, more so than on the charisma of the partners involved (although of course charisma helps).
Second, federal contracting is much longer term than business or nonprofit projects.
- A “standard” business consulting project is 8-12 weeks.
- Typical federal contracts are measured in fiscal years. I was on one project for 22 months.
- If it’s a big contract, there’s often opportunity to rotate internally within it; in that 22-month project, I had 4 or 5 different multi-month-long roles, but they were all still on the same project.
Third, federal “contracting” often differs from federal “consulting.”
- Consulting refers to the facilitative process I described above.
- Contracting, used as an industry term, refers to staff augmentation.
What is staff augmentation and why do federal contractors do it?
Staff augmentation refers to contracts that ask for temporary support of any kind, rather than those that employ the facilitative process that is a hallmark of consulting.
- If you are augmenting government staff, you are supporting an operation, rather than a project.
- Rather than improving an inefficient process as a consultant, the contractor executes the process repeatedly in the way that a federal employee might.
- This work could still be extremely valuable, like managing an important inbox for people needing local health resources, but it is operational and tactical, not “strategic” in the sense that society often conflates with consulting work.
A clear majority of government contracts require staff augmentation, so it is likely that you will work in this space in this line of work, rather than as a “true” consultant. Often in the run of staff augmentation work, ambitious contractors can create opportunities for themselves to act as consultants for their clients, but these opportunities are the exception rather than the rule.
What is the difference in career capital between “true consultants” and “staff augmentation work?”
Both are important.
- The former tends to be more strategic, the latter more tactical. Strategy is important for making sense of tradeoffs and outcomes, but it’s hard to calculate those without getting tactical. You cannot just “be the strategist” without having put skin in the game and had practical experiences.
- Or, you can, but you will have more blind spots as a result of failing to have conducted the same type of on the ground work. This approach could lead to poor outcomes, like making recommendations that sound good on paper but have no basis in reality.
Why does the government contract out staff augmentation rather than simply hiring more resources?
- Hiring freezes, budget risks due to varied congressional appropriations, and union action can sometimes make it hard to hire new federal staff.
- The government likes contractors because it can more easily define work and increase or reduce the level of help it’s receiving based on its changing needs. Think of us as “white collar mercenaries,” where the federal employees are the regular army.
How is working as a federal contractor different from working as a federal employee?
First, even with the staff augmentation caveat above, contracting work will still be based on a project, rather than on operations.
- You’re simply not a bureaucrat, you are a contractor. That means that you may rotate to different positions more than a federal employee would.
- Federal employees may “go on detail” to another agency, but these positions tend to be rarer and more competitive than a federal contractor who rotates as part of their company’s business model.
- There’s a tradeoff here and it depends on your preferences. Some people genuinely like doing the same thing every day and see their work as a part of their life, rather than the core instrument through which they find purpose. While I respect that approach, it is not mine; I get bored extremely easily. For that reason, the variety inherent in the federal contracting business made those roles more appealing to me.
Second, the pay.
- Federal contractors tend to get paid more, maybe 10-20%, than federal employees of the same seniority. Depends on the company, role, and macroeconomy, of course.
- That said, federal employees tend to get better benefits (harder to fire, better 401(k) vesting, better/cheaper health insurance, guaranteed raises, etc.).
- At the end of the day, it depends on your preferences and needs – choosing between the positions based on pay and benefits can ultimately be a wash.
- There might be a slight preference to working at a consulting firm if you’re only going to be doing it for a few years, and a preference to working as a fed if you want to do it for your entire career (you’ll get a nice pension and get your student loans waived if you work for the feds long enough).
Third, the expectations:
- Federal contractors are more likely to face the pressure of tight deliverable windows.
- Sometimes, we work weekends. We must work on proposals and business development initiatives if we want to get ahead at our firms, because these activities bring money into the company. Simply put, we work more hours, all else equal.
Fourth and finally, the role:
- Federal contractors are not going to be put in major decision-making positions on government policy; that’s simply not what they do.
- Even the most seasoned partners and managing directors are, at most, defining the work to do and working as a trusted advisor to federal executives, but they are rarely “in the room where it happens.” If you want to do that type of work, you might want to look into the Senior Executive Service, political appointments, running a political campaign (your own or someone who trusts you), or working on the Hill (i.e., in Congress).
- Compared to Congress, federal contractors work on implementation, not policy. Congress and the president work to develop policy and have the authority to say what will get done. The federal bureaucracy, including its agencies, are where the policies, executive orders, and laws get converted into the mechanics – how do we execute and implement this policy? What does this IT system need to do in order to meet legal requirements?
What is the day-to-day in the life of a federal contractor like?
There are three areas in which federal contractors work:
The first is the client – in our case, federal agencies and the staff who liaise with your consulting team to assign work, assess quality, and intermediate conversation with the rest of the agency. I described this work under “How the Consulting Process Works” and “What is Staff Augmentation” earlier in this article.
The second two are broadly called “business development”
In the first, there’s “account work” which refers to the scoping, research, and building of client relationships with a client account.
- For federal contractors, client accounts are agencies; for other businesses they might be individual customers or other companies.
- This work involves learning about that client’s needs and challenges, and the new topics they’re hoping to explore.
- Those needs and topics may eventually mature into a request for proposal on which we would bid to conduct client work.
- This type of research allows the firm to “shape” those requests for proposal, so that they align better with what the firm does.
- For example, an agency might host an “industry day” in which they openly talk about things they’re trying to do, and consulting firms will give free advice about how to go about it, and then hand them a brochure where they talk about how they did that exact thing last month at another agency.
The third category is about developing firm capabilities or solutions.
- If the firm does risk management work, then that would mean developing marketing materials (those brochures) on how the firm approaches risk management.
- You might also write blog posts or white papers on the approach.
- Or, you could do “R&D” work to further develop the firm’s understanding of risk management as a skill. These capabilities and custom-build software to deploy them for clients’ specific needs is the secret sauce of this industry.
- As you climb the corporate ladder, your bandwidth and expectations across these areas changes. At the entry level, you are mainly doing client work 40 hours a week, and then maybe an hour a night on business development initiatives. By contrast, a partner might only support clients 25% of the time and spend the rest of it building executive relationships and reviewing and critiquing research by their subordinates.
- You could also actively seek out a business development position instead of a federal contracting role. That would mean that you aren’t “client-facing” but instead work 100% on business development efforts. If you love to identify opportunities for work given pre-defined criteria rather than doing the work itself (such as being a recruiter or proposal writer) this could be a really good path for you; it’s often commission-based.
How do you get into federal contracting?
If you are just entering the workforce and don’t feel you have any skills or subject area expertise, do not fear; because senior consultants thrive on employing junior staff to support them in their efforts to satisfy their clients. They will assign you work and explain its relevance and significance, thereby empowering new recruits to learn robust skills and state-of-the-art knowledge on the job.
Many companies recruit on campus at many universities. If you’re an undergrad, I highly encourage you to find out if consulting firms do that at your campus. Rather than being one resume among thousands, you’re a face and personality among fifty.
Otherwise, I would recommend getting on LinkedIn and talking with managers and directors at companies you’re interested in working in and asking them about their work and their current openings, and they can help flag your resume with their HR and recruiting teams. Note: That is NOT me. I do not have hiring capabilities.
What requirements exist to work as a federal contractor?
While you do not always need a security clearance, being able to pass a background check might be necessary to gain initial employment with a consulting firm, public or private.
For federal government work, American citizenship is extremely helpful, often mandatory, in opening up your options. Citizenship is far less important in the commercial space.
To do the type of work I described under “How the Consulting Process Works” and “What is Staff Augmentation,” a four-year college degree will be essential – the government has mandatory requirements contractors must meet, and that’s one of them.
A master’s degree, MBA, JD, or PhD is helpful for justifying higher salaries, but is definitely not necessary. Consulting firms might prefer to hire undergrads with business backgrounds, but many also come from STEM and liberal arts backgrounds. I studied international relations and economics.
Will being a federal contractor burn you out?
Yes. Consultants often burn out. It’s really quite frequent, especially during the pandemic. This career path is exhausting due to the high amount of social interaction
What is the value of federal contracting for effective altruism?
I don’t think this career path is the most good you can do relative to direct EA work.
- Often, it’s inefficient, and the federal government’s slow bureaucracy can stifle urgently needed work.
- Often, it suffers from short-termism due to the structure of the American political system.
- That said, supporting federal efforts has significant indirect impacts. If you’re helping to build an IT system to people to borrow money for their education, then you’re taking part in supporting education efforts for millions of students. If you’re helping FEMA assess damage caused by a hurricane, you’re helping people recover from the financial costs of the disaster. Anything the federal government does impacts millions of people, even if it doesn’t happen day to day.
- These trends work in the negative direction too – I would advise you to avoid working in areas where the federal government is taking actions opposed to your values. I have avoided working under ICE contracts for this reason.
Compared to working in direct effective altruism areas, like AI alignment or poverty alleviation, it’s much harder to calculate your contribution.
- If you want to work in the policy-making spheres of these spaces, you’re better suited to becoming a political appointee or a member of the Senior Executive Service in the federal government, rather than working as a federal contractor. That said, working as a federal contractor is a great way to build up the resume that gets you into those lofty positions.
Federal contracting really shines in the way that consulting does – it builds priceless career capital and knowledge.
- You meet tons of people, build a wide array of skills, and experience dozens of environments. These experiences give you range: analogical reasoning skills, case studies to draw from, and varied frameworks to apply to new challenges.
- Federal contracting, in my view, is a masterclass in understanding best practices, problem solving, and design thinking.
- It can prepare you for graduate school in EA areas like social enterprise work, policy, and operations. If you stay in the field long enough and reach high positions, you can increase your influence over the work your company does, ensuring it focuses on high impact areas, and you’ll earn enough to donate substantially. That said, only do it if you enjoy the work, because it will burn you out.
What specific "skills" can you gain as a federal contractor or management consultant? Are they transferrable?
All of these are transferrable into many EA areas, if not all of them:
- Leadership (say, of small groups or multiple teams, or delegating laterally)
- Facilitating conversations, especially emotionally difficult ones, such as giving people feedback or receiving it
- Organizing and automating tasks and workflows
- Hiring and recruitment
- Quantitative analysis, including Excel, R, STATA
- Programming, including Python, SQL
- Data visualization, including Tableau and Microsoft PowerBI
- Creating executive presentations for clients, including recommendations for action
- Public speaking to deliver said presentations
- Sharp understanding of the beginning, middle, and end of processes, as well as how to map them graphically and identify inefficiencies in them
- Strategy, organizational transformation, and design
- Scope, schedule, and budget management
- Procurement, risk, and quality management
- You get the idea. Anything with the word management after it.
- Writing proposals
- Graphic design
- Lead generation
- Solution development
What are the ideal profiles of an effective altruist as a federal contractor?
With the obvious caveats of how much your milage may vary, in no particular order:
- An American citizen who can pass a background check.
- A bachelors’ degree.
- A need, hunger, or deep appreciation for variety. Resilience with respect to change, and the ups and downs that go with it
- High emotional intelligence and energy levels
- Excellent attention to detail
- Plans to move into entrepreneurialism, policy, the federal government, or operations work later on in your life
- Aspirations to become a corporate executive adjacent to the public sector.
- Appreciation for Washington, DC (all of my work is remote now, but I don’t know if it will stay that way).
- Interest in earning to give, or you have student loans to pay off. You can make six figures out of undergrad nowadays.
- Interest in the functioning of government and the improving of its efficiency
- Interest in IT, budgets, and AI which are a huge area where the government needs significant help
- Interest in gaining broad-ranging technical and soft skills to advance other career aims
- You like lots of social interaction and working with small teams in larger organizations
What are some indicators that this type of work is not for you?
- You dislike variability more than your friends; you prefer stability over randomness.
- You don’t have much of an interest in IT, budgeting, AI, or other technical areas that are often the bread and butter of federal contracting. That said, if you’re interested in strategy, operations, risk, or other business functions, that would be a reason to consider the path anyway.
- You dislike the slower pace of government and would prefer to work at a startup where you can “move fast and break things.”
- You shiver at the thought of having to go out and network every day.
What are some resources to read? What companies do federal contracting?
Companies: McKinsey, BCG, Guidehouse, Booze Allen Hamilton, Grant Thornton, Deloitte, EY, Accenture, and KPMG. Those are the big names, but there are hundreds of smaller boutique firms who have narrower scopes of work. See what I said earlier about teaming agreements.
Things to read: Federal Acquisitions Regulation, websites of industry standards-setting organizations like the Project Management Institute or American Society for Quality. Flawless Consulting by Peter Block. The Management Myth by Matthew Stewart.
Please feel free to reach out to me with questions. If you comment below any errors or caveats worth including, I’ll edit this article 😊