Dead Letter Prohibitions and Policy Failures: Applying Government Ethics Standards to Personal Services Contractors

36 Pages Posted: 10 Jan 2012 Last revised: 7 Mar 2012

See all articles by Collin D. Swan

Collin D. Swan

George Washington University - Law School; Office of Suspension and Debarment, The World Bank

Date Written: January 6, 2012


The last two decades have been marked by numerous political efforts to reduce the size of the federal workforce and declare the end of the “era of big government.” These efforts left the federal government strapped for personnel and resources and have forced many agencies to increasingly rely on service contractors in general, and personal services contractors in particular, to fulfill their mandates. According to the Federal Acquisition Regulations, a personal services contract is a contract that creates an employer-employee relationship between the contractor and the federal government. Despite a longstanding — and, arguably, outdated — regulatory prohibition on the use of personal services contracts, many agencies are increasingly employing personal services contractors in positions traditionally reserved for government employees. The result is an absurd situation in which government ethics laws apply differently to service contractors and federal employees who work alongside each other, perform similar discretionary tasks, and have the same potential to engage in corrupt practices.

This Note argues that the personal services prohibition represents an outdated and inefficient method of protecting the government’s interest and should be abolished. Given the government’s current reliance on service contractors, procurement officials should not be concerned with whether a contract creates an employment relationship with the government, but instead with whether contractor personnel are being properly managed and supervised. Congress should thus explicitly abolish the personal services prohibition and apply government ethics laws to personal services contractors. This would reduce the ability of personal services contractors, who often perform discretionary functions on the government’s behalf, to act in their own personal interest to the detriment of the government’s mission.

Keywords: blended workforce, personal services contracts, ethics, conflicts of interest, civil service, federal workforce, government contracts, acquisition

JEL Classification: H57, J71, K12, K23, L33, L84

Suggested Citation

Swan, Collin D., Dead Letter Prohibitions and Policy Failures: Applying Government Ethics Standards to Personal Services Contractors (January 6, 2012). George Washington Law Review, Vol. 80, No. 2, February-March 2012, GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2012-3, GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 2012-3, Available at SSRN:

Collin D. Swan (Contact Author)

George Washington University - Law School ( email )

2000 H Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20052
United States

Office of Suspension and Debarment, The World Bank

1818 H Street, NW
Washington, DC 20433
United States

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