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 facilities.

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 surprises.

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 tbragg@acm.org.


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