President Obama looks set to name former astronaut and U.S. Marine Corps General Charles Bolden the director of the National Air and Space Administration (NASA). In many ways this is a good choice. He worked as a deputy director there, has flown on shuttle missions, and has leadership abilities. This choice also highlights another problem faced by government when finding these kind of people. Bolden has extensive ties to two current major contractors for NASA from when he retired.
This is a problem that many military or government civil servants face when they retire. They are hired by contractors due to their experience and contacts. Within the bounds of the Federal ethics rule they are often hired to help administer contracts they were involved with on the government side. Obama when he took office strengthened those rules by issuing an executive order that banned lobbyists from executive branch appointed positions. Unfortunately he issued a waiver the next day for William Lynn who was to be the Assistant Secretary of Defense and had been a lobbyist for Raytheon.
The issue with Bolden is that he now will be required to recuse himself from any dealings with those contractors. While the Director of NASA is not day-to-day involved in contract execution there may be events in the future that require it. He also would have the ability to effect contract awards and execution just by his position. If it is felt that he has an interest the bureaucracy may respond in a way not necessarily in the best interests of the government. This may make Bolden a less then effective leader and manager. There is no evidence, of course, that Bolden is corrupt or would do this it is just the apperance that matters.
The most blatant recent case of this is Darleen Druyen who was the senior civil servant in the U.S. Air Force's Acquisition organization. She retired and took a job with Boeing right after several major contract awards including the controversial tanker lease. It later turned out she had been discussing this job with them while deciding on the contracts. Druyen actually went to jail as did some Boeing executives. Boeing lost some work and there were more reforms passed. Normally things don't happen like this but they certainly can.
The most sensible reform would be to make it illegal for a U.S. military member or civil servant engaged in acquisition not be able to work for a contractor. This unfortunately would hurt the government as often that is the only way to keep experience people with detailed knowledge of programs available to support them. There certainly needs to be more oversight of these issues.
Photo from Xaethyx's Flickr photostream.