Steve Kelman takes the pulse of vendors who focus on the public sector.
I was recently in Washington to participate in a panel discussion at the fall meeting of the Coalition for Government Procurement. CGP is an organization representing vendors of commercial products to the government, particularly but not only through the General Service Administration schedules, and the panel featured former Office of Federal Procurement Policy and GSA administrators discussing their experiences in government and reflecting on the current procurement environment.
Since I don’t spend very much time these days interacting with vendors, I thought it might be interesting to buttonhole some vendors at the conference, ask a few questions, and write a blog post about what I had learned. I took advantage of a lengthy networking session to talk with 12 participants, all of whom worked for companies that sell their products or services to federal agencies.
To keep things short and sweet, and not impose on folks too much, I asked only three questions. Here is what I learned.
My first question was how they had landed in their current jobs and whether they had ever worked for a company that sold to the commercial marketplace rather than the federal government. Many had gotten their jobs through a friend. Rather dramatically, only one had previously worked for a company selling to the commercial marketplace (excluding those who worked for companies selling to the commercial marketplace but themselves working on federal sales for those companies). The government and commercial worlds are even more divided than I had expected.
I was far more interested, however, in the answers to my other two questions: What aspect or aspects of their job gave them the most satisfaction, and what about their job was most frustrating?
On the first question, what I was most curious about was the extent to which people would measure helping their government customers and their missions, as opposed to other sources of satisfaction (such as successfully landing deals or personal relationships with colleagues at work). For the second, I didn’t have any strong ideas for what I might hear, but the question seemed like a logical complement to the earlier one.
What gave these vendors the most satisfaction? For seven of the 12, it was serving customers and their missions: “helping government solve its problems,” “knowing my work is helping their work,” “helping them do things cheaper and more efficiently.” Four talked about business development and winning contracts, while one cited internal work inside the company to help implement a merger.
Answers on what frustrated them were more dispersed. The most common (four of those interviewed) was frustration over how slowly the government acted -- “how long it takes to work through the procurement system,” “the amount of time it takes to get things done in government.” (One respondent, on the other hand, was frustrated by internal bureaucracy inside his own company.) Two complained that budget cutbacks in the agencies where they were selling made it difficult for the agency to do its job (and presumably to buy their products). One complained about the lack of communication: “The government won’t talk with us enough. We don’t know things are coming.” Other answers were all over the map.
I phrased the first question about sources of satisfaction very generally, so as not to encourage one kind of answer or another. It was heartening that so many of those I spoke with identified with the mission their work is supposed to promote, improving delivery of agency missions.
Many people, and particularly outside critics of the contracting system, assume that contractors focus only on making money. Of course contractors want to make money, but if we assume that is all they are about, we lose opportunities to engage them in common, larger purposes. Government managers need to keep this in mind when dealing with vendors, and always be looking for ways to engage the better angels of the contractors with whom they work. Chatting with contractors at the CGP event reminded me that those better angels are there, waiting to be utilized.
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