The dot-com backlash

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

from dot-coms.

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

similar preparation.

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.

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