COMMENTARY

In acquisition, more meetings might not be a waste of time

Peter G. Tuttle is vice president of Distributed Solutions, an acquisition consulting firm, and a fellow at the National Contract Management Association.

For the past few years, it seems that every conference, seminar and executive session in Washington, D.C., that deals with federal acquisition management dwells, at least in part, on the need for better collaboration and communication between government and industry. Add to that the General Services Administration’s BetterBuy project, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy’s myth-busters initiative, the Obama administration’s 25-point plan for improving IT management — the list goes on and on.

In my opinion, we can’t talk about it enough. However, improving government/industry communication is more difficult than simply saying we need to do it. There are many reasons for the difficulty, but let’s look at two in particular: culture and bandwidth.

At last month’s Acquisition Excellence 2012 conference sponsored by GSA and the American Council for Technology/Industry Advisory Council, Mary Davie, assistant commissioner of GSA’s Office of Integrated Technology Services, posed a great question to the audience: “Has communication between government and industry gotten better in the past couple of years?”

The answers varied widely. On reflection, some organizations are easier to communicate and collaborate with than others, and the difference generally stems from culture, not policy. If agencies don’t encourage employees to reach out — or if they punish them for doing so — employees won’t make the effort.

The culture is beginning to change. In both government and industry, senior acquisition leaders have become more accessible and have begun to beat the drum for better communication and collaboration. Also, the younger generation’s adoption of social media as a method to stay in touch — that is, to communicate and collaborate — is also changing the way we all interact. That’s a good thing. Still, a fear of openly communicating and collaborating is still widespread in the middle ranks of many organizations.

One thing that might help is to keep having events where industry and government can participate at a professional and social level, such as the recent conference. Barriers start to come down when folks can interact in a “safe” environment where they can discuss their challenges and engage one another in dialogue, thus increasing their awareness, understanding and empathy (yes, empathy) for one another. Professional organizations, industry associations and public/private partnerships play a big role in opening communication and encouraging collaboration.

Another big issue is bandwidth. Today, we are all frightfully busy, and it is tough to find any time to meet with people who are not directly involved with our immediate priorities. Additionally, we all spend so much time in meetings already that the thought of having more of them is unappealing. After all, we have “real” work to accomplish.

The problem is that spending time understanding the market, the mission requirements, the technology, the vendor, the agency, etc., is part of our real work. And with extremely tight budgets on the horizon, that understanding is more important than ever. By sharing their experiences, industry and government acquisition professionals might find ways to reduce costs and stretch every dollar, whether taxpayer or corporate, as far as possible. So we need to make the time.

Industry can help by scheduling short, focused meetings with their government contacts and recognizing that none of us have time to waste.

So although communication and collaboration are happening more and more, we need to keep the pressure up, and we need to be patient. Changing culture takes a lot of time and effort. Let’s keep up the good work!

Reader comments

Tue, Apr 10, 2012 SPMayor Summit Point, WV

I agree with Peter: industry needs to continue to express its desire for better and more frequent communications with the Government and on individual procurement/program opportunities. To Mary Davie - thank you for being a champion forsuch communications; but to answer you question - it's getting better but it's not where it needs to be yet. Industry needs to consider who and why its representatives are pursing the discussion - too often industry is interested in pitching itself, ghosting its competitors and offering a bakery solution when only a loaf of bread is being sought. Feds need to be less anxiety prone and have more backbone in managing a free flowing discussion in which they are in control.Too often Government-industry discussions remind me of junior high dances : we stand on the sides watching a few brave souls having a good time and wishing it could be us. People like Mary and Peter have asked the band to begin playing - just pick a partner and get out on the floor.

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