Okay: Fixing a Networx disconnect

Former FTS official prevents a communications breakdown

John Okay may deserve a peace prize for brokering discussions and defusing tensions between industry leaders and federal officials in the months leading up to the government’s forthcoming telecommunications acquisition known as Networx. The process could have been angry and unproductive, according to participants on both sides, if someone of Okay’s experience and temperament had not voluntarily stepped into the fray.

Okay said he learned a lot about dialogue between government and industry when the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service was developing the FTS 2001 contract in the mid-1990s. He was assistant FTS commissioner then and saw firsthand the benefits of good dialogue and the dangers of overlooking it.

So when officials began to develop Networx, Okay stepped in. Retired from government since 1997, Okay is now a partner at Topside Consulting. He is also a member of the Industry Advisory Council’s Networks and Telecommunications Shared Interest Group (SIG), placing him in a good position to bring the two sides together.

“It’s all because of the experience I had when we were working on the strategy of what became FTS 2001,” Okay said. In 2003, he began working with GSA officials, including John Johnson, who now holds Okay’s former position, to informally pass along lessons learned, he said.

Okay volunteered to bring industry and government leaders together, set meeting agenda, recruit people to serve on panels and foster debate, Johnson said. In some ways, he said, the measure of Okay’s success lies in his ability to dispel the potentially contentious and accusatory environment that sometimes accompanies large procurements.

Rick Slifer, a vice president at Broadwing Communications who was chairman of the telecom SIG at the time, said Okay facilitated discussions among government and industry officials through a series of organized industry days. “John was kind of like the steering jets on the rocket,” Slifer said. “Industry was anxious to do a lot of things — government was too — and John helped set the agenda and set up the playing field.”

Okay applied his experience and insight to choose topics of broad interest for discussion, Slifer added.

“It’s difficult to construct a day where everybody comes out of it feeling that they got something of value,” he said. “They know [Okay is] going to focus on an issue that’s going to be important and not going to waste their time.”

Okay said he started early and convinced officials on each side that they didn’t have to have all the answers before beginning to talk. He encouraged GSA officials to use industry’s concerns as information to develop a contract more attractive to companies.

“I tried to be persistent in that message,” he said. “They were generally receptive to that idea, but they wanted time to focus the strategy internally” before starting serious discussions.

Industry leaders have been right to push FTS officials for details, Okay said. Thanks to his private-sector experience after retiring from government in 1997, “I understand better [why] industry needs as many details as possible as early in the process as possible,” he said.

Okay also enlisted the help of the Interagency Management Council and organized the first Networx forum in early 2004. Because federal contracts have to meet the needs of agencies while providing contractors enough potential reward to be worth competing for, Okay felt both sides needed to be well-represented to exchange ideas, information and concerns.

Although Okay said he believes the dialogue between the parties in developing Networx has been effective, there are still issues on which the two sides simply can’t reconcile their different needs.

Speaking after a recent House Government Reform Committee hearing during which several industry officials voiced concerns about the reporting requirements that Networx could impose on them, Okay said companies might have to accept the burden.

“A reality is that the government does require different kinds of reports than commercial customers,” he said. Although industry officials can and should argue for less burdensome requirements, they also must accept that there are some limits that FTS can’t go beyond.

Because Okay knows how government and industry officials think, he is an ideal person to facilitate discussions, Slifer said.

“There are some very, very critical issues on both sides of the fence,” he said. “Industry wanted this thing to be as commercial as it can be. Government wants it to be the most robust solution for the best price. John understands both sides of it, and people know that he does.”

Okay can also rely on his direct involvement in developing FTS 2001, Slifer added. “What he brings is a breadth of experience and judgment about these things, [about] what breeds success and what will lead to failure if things aren’t managed correctly,” he said.

Okay defused what could have been a long and contentious process by bringing expertise, a reasoned approach and a calm demeanor to the fore, Johnson said.

“He’s demonstrated a good bit of leadership,” Johnson said. “John is an interesting individual in that he’s not one to boast about himself or to use his energies to facilitate his point of view. He helps to facilitate the common view.” “Just whining and complaining isn’t good enough,” said Bob Collet, vice president of engineering at AT&T Government Solutions. “What John was able to do was obtain thoughtful input from all the industry players.”

In addition to understanding the strategic needs of the government and the industry, Okay also is familiar with many of the technologies involved, Collet said. “John has not only many years of experience as an executive in government, he’s also strong technically, which is an unusual combination,” Collet said. “He can hold his own in a discussion with anyone.”

Okay characterizes his contribution modestly.

“Persistence was the one thing I brought,” he said. “I’m fortunate, being able to look at the process with the perspective of my own experience.”

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