The dot-com backlash
- By Steve Kelman
- Oct 16, 2000
Some fascinating comments surfaced recently at a session of the annual Industry
Advisory Council meeting, suggesting unhappiness and resistance among potential
government customers over how the many dot-coms entering the federal marketplace
are approaching government customers.
One senior official responsible for a major agency's e-government initiatives
complained of dot-com marketers who had no real feel for the security issues
involved in the agency's Internet presence. The marketers instead talked
about the role of agency Web sites in increasing the agency's "brand identity" — something the agency hardly finds necessary — by increasing the time visitors
spend on the agency's Web site. This, of course, is something the agency
generally regards as negative value, because it hopes to be so user-friendly
that people don't need to stay long on the site.
The senior procurement official at a major agency complained about dot-com
e-procurement marketers who had never heard of small-business set-asides,
full and open competition, or other features of the procurement system.
Corridor conversation among feds in the crowd suggested that such horror
stories resonated among federal customers who are besieged by meeting requests
The frustrations the government officials expressed are understandable.
But I worry that, through body language or the tone of voice displayed at
meetings with some of these firms, some feds (although not the two government
folks who raised this issue) might give signals that the new players are
unwelcome in government.
That would be a tragedy. The rapid, massive dot-com invasion of the
past year is an important sign of how much more commercial-like the federal
marketplace has become through procurement reform, in particular, and reinventing
government, in general. Much more than in the past, the government is open
to the cutting-edge, innovative commercial solutions that dot-coms offer.
And of course, those dot-coms are small businesses, which government should
make a special effort to accommodate.
Just about the only advice offered to dot-coms by the feds at this session
was to seek out vendors at the meeting, who know the federal marketplace
very well. That may indeed be one good piece of advice, but it's not appropriate
in all circumstances, and surely one doesn't wish to give dot-coms the message
that to succeed they must ally themselves with traditional players.
Dot-coms should also check out agency Web sites and look at the computer
trade press to learn about special issues agencies face.
Above all, dot-coms have an obligation to do their market research homework
the same way as they do for a commercial customer. They would never think
of visiting Procter & Gamble without knowledge of that company's specific
issues and problems. They shouldn't visit a government customer without
Kelman, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993
to 1997, is Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's John
F. Kennedy School of Government.