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By Steve Kelman

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Listening in on GovLoop

Every once in a while I like to check out what's happening at the "Acquisition 2.0" group (founded by the General Services Administration's Mary Davie) hosted in Govloop.com, the social networking site for federal government folks.

Govloop itself has more than doubled the number of people signed up for the site over the last year, to about 45,000 -- and the acquisition group (one of, amazingly, almost 900 groups on the site) currently has 718 members.

I read through a series of posts on the topic "Collaborate Lately," which solicited experiences and best practices about the value of getting industry collaboration with government early in the process of developing an RFP, using social media. The posts (15 in all) were very interesting. There were several posts from contractors noting that their firm's chain of command -- and particularly the business development people in charge of the interface with the agency on a procurement in the works -- were frequently very uneasy about unauthorized communication with the government using social media by rank-and-filers inside the company. The "official" people remain terrified of saying something that night tell competitors or the government too much. (I'm not sure if this is more a statement supporting the observation that companies who play mostly in the government marketplace tend to take on all the dysfunctional features of the behavior of their customers, or just that bureaucracy is bureaucracy everywhere, private or public.)

To be sure, social media pre-RFP shouldn't be the only form of communication – one-on-one meetings allow companies to provide the government with information they don't want competitors to have. But social media does dramatically lower the cost of communication, and creates the potential to make communication more communicative, so this should be a tool in the government's information-gathering process.

There was also a comment by a government person that reflected a cultural problem inside the government that inhibits not only pre-RFP communication using social media, but early communication in general: "Many acquisition professionals I work with still believe we need to develop a complete requirement before providing visibility to industry. As a community, I don't think we're convinced of the imperative to engage early with industry if we're going to meet the government's needs in the most effective way in declining budgets."

Finally, there was a really interesting, and specific, post by somebody from the Australian Government Information Office -- wonder how they found out about Govloop? -- about helpful practices for organizing early communication.

A very different observation about the group is that the amount of traffic in the group is still rather modest even though it has more than 700 members. Only three discussions have been opened over the last few months, and one of the those has generated no traffic. There are a fair number of single posts about a smattering of broad topics – such as membership fees for the Tyson's Corner National Contract Management Association chapter or job openings – and some specific, targeted questions. This shows the challenge of building communities of practice. As work becomes more distributed, and more and more functional specialists work in cross-functional teams, the challenges of creating an equivalent to the office water cooler, where functional experts can help teach each other, grows stronger.

We need to learn better how successfully to create alternatives.

Posted on Oct 12, 2011 at 12:09 PM


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Reader comments

Fri, Oct 21, 2011 Interested Party

Probably the biggest problem with getting a lot of participation in this type of social media is that we are all so overworked and stressed just trying to get the job done that we just don't have enough left in the tank to engage in the social aspects. Under different circumstances, you would probably get many more responses from participants. For instance, I have only a small amount of time in my lunch 1/2 hour to respond to this, so You get a couple of quick sentences dashed off. Good luck on getting a lot more.

Fri, Oct 14, 2011 Mary Davie Washington DC

Steve, thanks for the post! The discussion "Collaborate Lately" helped inform the guidance we developed for the Pre-RFP collaboration platform of the 25 Point IT Reform Plan. Yes traffic is modest, but I think GovLoop provides a great platform, and maybe the only one of its kind for widespread collaboration (even from Australia) between and across governments, industry and others. And little, by little, we're getting there, especially with help from people like you.

Thu, Oct 13, 2011

The problem pointed out about lack of communication with the vendor community prior to the RFP is one of the key problems that I believe need fixing with the current Acquisition process. I've work in the government contracting areana for 25 years and worked on dozens of proposals from $500k to $500M. One of the most common occurances is the inclusion of a firm requirement that everyone bidding knows can't be accomplished or could be accomplished in a different manner for half the cost. Yet there is almost never a means by which this can be communicated to the issuing agency AND as the vendor if you do not respond to the RFP exactly as written, you risk automatic noncompliance and your bid never being considered. Most of the time you are not even free to respond to the proposal as written and then include alternative options. In a "fortunate" situation, the agency will figure it out after they received the bids and then amend the RFP, causing every one to need to resubmit. This drives the cost of responding to government proposals up, which gets reflected in the ultimate cost to the government and it means that small firms who have something innovative to bring to the table frequently can't compete due to the incredibly high proposal contests. The agency, the vendors and ALL taxpayers loose in this situation.

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