Mutual interest

What do the Girl Scouts, Save the Children and the March of Dimes have in common? Each organization is having a gala benefit this month in Washington, D.C. Ranging from opening night at the circus to a celebrity cook-off featuring 30 Cabinet members, senators and representatives, these kinds of events are a longtime tradition and an important source of funding for charitable organizations.

In recent years, the federal information technology community has begun to join this tradition — from Web pages to the society pages, if you will. Last month, AFCEA International's Bethesda, Md., chapter sponsored an inspiring, sellout benefit for the Children's Inn at the National Institutes of Health. Next month, the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils and the Industry Advisory Council will sponsor the "Connect for a Cure" black-tie gala to benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

These events are salutary in two ways. First, they help the beneficiary organizations while providing enjoyable networking. Equally important, they signal the growing maturity of the federal IT community. This could not come at a more appropriate moment.

The global IT community suffered a big shock in the dot-com crash. Surviving firms, because of the recession and the aftermath of Sept. 11, increasingly look to the federal marketplace. Sales targets are up for established federal vendors, and many other firms are now approaching the federal government as a potential customer for the first time.

Longtime members of the government IT community understand that federal agencies are different from commercial customers. Indeed, understanding the nuances of culture and process inside agencies can be an essential edge in an increasingly competitive marketplace. But the government is different in another, much more important way — mission.

America's founders created a government to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." These are not the bottom-line reasons that motivate firms. The concept of public service includes a dimension of stewardship of the commons, working to the benefit of all.

There is much talk today about public/private partnerships. Sound partnerships are based on mutual interest, not charity. But unlike purely private partnerships, public/private ones must respect the mission of government and understand the concept of service. Leadership groups such as those mentioned above, the Council for Excellence in Government and the Private Sector Council are demonstrating the potential of these partnerships. All of the members of the federal IT community, newcomers and old-timers alike, should take the time to combine and build on the best talents of the private and public sectors. As a nation, we need them both.

McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget, is president of McConnell International LLC (www.mcconnellinternational.com).

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