Lent: Fixing an image problem

Here’s a novel way for government contractors to have a positive image in the market: Earn it

General Electric has an enduring positive image. GE says it “brings good things to light.” That kind of slogan isn’t readily associated with government contractors. As an aside, GE is also a contractor with baggage that includes False Claims Act settlements and numerous brushes with price-fixing matters over the years. But who remembers those incidents?

Features of the contracting business environment, including weak government oversight and public companies’ need to satisfy Wall Street, have spawned many of the negative images that stick to contractors. Grist for those images comes from reports about contract performance and business practices.

You don’t have to dig deep to find the information. Without that information, proposal evaluators, lawmakers and others would know much less about patterns of troubled contract performance, alleged excessive profits, False Claims Act suits and the like.

People don’t necessarily care that the majority of federal contracts are performed adequately or better, or that contractors deliver vital support for the most critical government functions. The way most of us think, great performance doesn’t eliminate the odor of bad work done for other customers.

One surprising aspect of the image problem is that the companies don’t do much to publicize their success stories. When asked why, industry executives tell me that someone might find something wrong with the procurement or their company’s work or that publicizing their success will help the competition. Talk about risk aversion.

Come to think of it, why don’t companies brag about the jobs well done in their press releases? The public and others might tune out success stories, but those accounts contain one of the hardest currencies in the business: a testimonial from a satisfied client.

And behind the curtains of the proposal evaluation process, when past performance claims are validated, those stories are about the most powerful kind of information there is.

What’s the best medicine for the image problem? First, strong performance for clients and not appearing in the bad-news stories. When did you last see SRA International in a bad-news item? Second, give some attention to getting your company’s accomplishments known more prominently.

Don’t count on the government to make it easier for you to look good, because it won’t. No matter who occupies the White House or Congress, transparency, value, exacting ethical standards, penetrating oversight and increased accountability are the new hardy perennials for contractors.

Most important, companies shouldn’t expect to engineer, lobby or spin their way out of an image problem.

However, they can manage their way out of it. Sad to say, managing well, not just scrapping by and getting paid, has become a prime differentiator for too few firms.

Don’t stint on managing contracts or on quality. Every unused product or delivered information technology system that doesn’t work right, every busted budget and schedule, every unwarranted award fee and every jarring staff substitution will help to keep the image meter where it is now.

Lent was at Booz Allen Hamilton for more than 25 years. He is now the editor and publisher of the Government Services Insider newsletter in Washington.

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