Rhetoric and reality
There's a lot of rhetoric about partnering. Vendors, when they submit proposals
to agencies, often talk about their desire to "partner" with the agency.
In many cases, this is just rhetoric: The vendor is proposing a rosy relationship,
but the real desire is to get as many dollars from the government for doing
as little work as possible.
That doesn't sound like a partnership to me.
The traditional contracting relationship is somewhat adversarial. Rules
and regulations must be followed, and there are penalties for the contractor
(and, rarely, the government agency) that fails to follow them. One might
wonder: Is it even possible to "partner"?
In the case of complex proj-ects, such as software development and systems
integration, I believe that it is possible for an agency and a contractor
to develop an effective partnership. But what are the specific steps that
each side needs to take?
First of all, a partnership requires that the parties know each other
beyond some superficial extent. An excellent first step to this end is to
have a project kickoff meeting that is more than pro forma: one that specifically
addresses the expectations of both sides.
If the government agency wants its technical staff to learn from the
vendor (a process sometimes called "technology transfer"), the beginning
of the project is the time to explicitly say so. If the vendor needs some
flexibility in scheduling staff on the project, its representatives should
bring that up early on as well. If the proj-ect manager (on either side)
can live with schedule changes but cannot afford surprises, Day One is the
time to mention it.
Knowing the expectations upfront, both parties can put in place operational
procedures that meet each other's needs, and it's much less likely that
the project will "slide" from month to month down a path unsatisfactory
to both sides. Expectations that are not shared lead to disappointment,
disputes and even litigation.
Beyond the kickoff meeting, contractor and government personnel need
to form an integrated team. Unless the participants have worked together
on previous projects, it's very important that everybody work together in
one place if possible. This may mean that the agency has to provide facilities,
or it may mean that government employees have to agree to work in contractor
Another important concept in partnering is to produce frequent visible
results that are accessible to all parties. In a typical project, agency
personnel may only see products upon delivery which can give rise to unpleasant
A dedicated team of government and vendor personnel, which produces
working models of a system every few weeks, has something it can show with
pride to others. And there's nothing like having pride in your work to create
a real partnership that delivers outstanding results a situation where
all parties win.
Bragg is an independent consultant and systems architect with extensive
experience in the federal market. He welcomes your questions and topic suggestions
at [email protected].