Talking across the fence

IT industry groups have complex relationships with the federal agencies and lawmakers they often collaborate with

IT industry groups and government-run colleges

Not all lawmakers are aware of the extensive collaborative efforts between information technology industry groups and government-run higher education institutions.

“IT industry groups have partnered with government higher learning institutions to jointly develop world-class programs,” said Robert Carey, the Navy’s chief information officer.

Carey pointed specifically to the collaboration between IT industry leaders and the Information Resources Management College, which:

  • Draws on industry group members to serve as guest lecturers in CIO-related courses.
  • Maintains two industry chair positions in which appointees serve two- to four-year assignments and bring a private-sector perspective to the college’s programs.
  • Works with private industry to identify best practices and trends that the institution can incorporate into its coursework.

— Mark Tarallo

IT industry groups take the heat at hearings

In certain situations, such as contentious congressional hearings, the role of an information technology industry group can become an unenviable one — being the bearer of bad news. Sometimes an IT industry group delivers hearing testimony that is critical of a federal agency or even Congress itself.

“There are times when the issues are somewhat unpleasant,” said Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America.

Some believe it is somewhat easier for an IT industry organization to play that role because most industry groups are nonprofit, Grkavac said. “That’s part of the job,” she said. “You take the heat. You get abused at times.”

That’s OK, Grkavac added, as long as the IT group expresses the majority view of its members and does absolutely nothing to compromise its credibility.

“In this town, that’s everything,” Grkavac said. “You lose your credibility, you lose everything.”

— Mark Tarallo

Information technology industry groups play many roles in the federal IT community: Adviser, collaborator, forum for industry/government communication and sometime-provider of substantial policy analyses.

In recent interviews, industry group leaders and government IT executives discussed those roles, the expectations behind them and how they play out in the larger policy-making world. The discussions made it clear that the contributions of IT industry groups are varied and far-reaching. Some of those contributions are well-recognized; others, less so.

“The government has different expectations for different industry groups. Each group plays a valued and important role.”
Martha Dorris, General Services Administration and American Council on Technology

What also emerged in the discussion is a portrait of the relationship between industry groups and the federal government, which in some ways resembles the relationship between spouses: mutually beneficial, certainly, but also multifaceted, influenced by day-to-day realities, and occasionally, not what you’d expect.

‘What’s in it for me?’

Nearly everyone agrees that IT groups play a crucial role as a trusted adviser to government, sharing real-world knowledge and letting federal agencies know about potential government applications for the latest commercial technology developments.

“Federal officials, I think, rely on IT groups to tell them the ‘What’s in it for me?’ message,” said Larry Allen, president of the Coalition for Government Procurement.

The range of issues on which industry groups dispense advice can seem endless, ranging from big-picture topics such as planning and strategy to practical matters such as acquisition.

Industry groups “play an important role in both planning federal IT design and dealing with practical issues that arise in the procurement process,” said Roger Cochetti, public policy director at the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA).

And when federal agencies propose regulatory changes, IT groups are expected to provide their views on how the changes would affect their slice of the industry.

“They expect us to comment,” said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council. “That happens. We’re fairly ubiquitous on that.”

But trusted adviser is only one role that government expects IT industry groups to play. Martha Dorris, a deputy associate administrator at the General Services Administration and president of the American Council on Technology (ACT), said she believes it is important for IT industry groups to create a collaborative forum in which the focus is not on rulemaking or lobbying but on sharing information.

A collaborative forum

Dorris described a collaborative forum as a place where government:

  • Can seek information on the latest and emerging technologies, prominent issues, business models and best practices.

  • Can get to know the industry players and their products and services in a neutral forum.

  • Can share its strategies and plans with industry.

Ideally, each IT industry group would bring its own unique perspective to the forum, she said. Collectively, those perspectives would be a valuable base of knowledge on which federal agencies could draw.

“The government has different expectations for different industry groups,” Dorris said. “Each group plays a valued and important role.”
Where can such collaborative forums be found? Robert Carey, the Navy’s chief information officer, pointed to groups such as ACT, which works in tandem with the Industry Advisory Council, and the Association for Federal Information Resources Management.

A frequent venue for collaboration, Carey said, is a monthly Government IT Speaker Series sponsored by IAC/ACT, in partnership with federal agency CIOs. Open to all federal IT employees, the series has addressed issues ranging from risk management to securing information on mobile devices.

More substantial in scope and length, Carey said, are the two key conferences that IAC/ACT offers each year: the Executive Leadership Conference and Management of Change.

“These events bring experts from across academia, industry and government to collaborate and share ideas to solve common problems faced by industry and government CIOs,” Carey said.

Similarly, AFCEA International holds IT conferences for the Homeland Security Department, the Defense Information Systems Agency and all the military departments. Those conferences provide venues for industry and senior government leaders to share ideas and information. For the past two years, the Navy has hosted its own IT conferences at the same time and location as the AFCEA conferences, which the organization holds in the fleet concentration areas of Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Va., and San Diego.

“This allows attendees to take advantage of the synergy resulting from having the [two conferences] in one place,” Carey said.

In the area of leadership development, IAC/ACT has developed the Partner program for government and Voyager for industry, which are eight-month leadership training programs for senior and mid-level IT specialists.

Congressional demands

Administering those forums takes time and resources, neither of which is in infinite supply. IT group representatives say that working with the government in an advisory and collaborative role means dealing with requests from a broad range of federal executives, from senior policy leaders to in-the-trenches technology specialists.

“The government encompasses many people at many different levels and areas of responsibility,” said IAC Chairman Venkatapathi Puvvada. “The needs of those different people are quite varied.”

In that regard, one major responsibility for industry groups is working with Congress. Hearings are often packed with representatives from industry groups, and most members of Congress take it as a given that testimony from an IT group will reflect high-level expertise.

But that resource-consuming work can cut into the time IT industry groups try to devote to advising government agencies on technology developments and industry trends, Cochetti said. “For associations like CompTIA, the day-to-day demands from the Congress can sometimes overshadow the needs of federal IT executives. I would assume that [federal executives] would hope that we could do more to keep them educated and informed,” he said.

Role reversal

In addition, there are times when day-to-day demands can cause the relationship between IT industry groups and the government to take an unexpected turn, Allen said.

Allen explained it this way: The government expects industry groups to keep it abreast of the latest technology trends. IT groups understand and accept that role, but they also provide advice on procurement issues.

“IT groups weigh in, sometimes heavily, on how the government should acquire their IT, what the rules of the contracts should be, how to ensure fairness and competition,” Allen said.

However, procurement is an area in which a federal agency often winds up in the advisory role, trying to help industry groups understand complicated procurement regulations.

“What happens in actuality, I think, is the two roles are reversed,” Allen said. “Most industry groups that I know of spend more time discussing acquisition rules and regs than they do technological developments. I don’t think this is bad. Keeping rules reasonable ensures competition and good acquisition lead times.”

Often a rules-and-regulations focus is the most logical role for an industry organization.

“It is far easier for [member] companies to agree on keeping the rules and regs reasonable than to agree on what types of technological solutions to promote,” Allen said. “Often, what one company sees as a set of fair rules is the same [view] as a competitor, making it a good association issue.”

Efficient communication

Day-to-day work demands make efficient communications an essential ingredient of the industry group/federal agency relationship, said Olga Grkavac, executive vice president at the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA).

From a company’s perspective, an IT industry organization fulfills the role of an efficient communicator by identifying the appropriate government executives to which companies can convey their concerns about specific policy issues. Without that focus, a company would likely get lost in the bureaucratic maze trying to get its views heard, Grkavac said.

“The federal agencies are mega by themselves,” she said. “Some of them are the size of small countries.”

From the government’s perspective, IT groups provide a kind of distilled communication, a clear expression of the majority view of a segment of the industry. Grkavac said that role is on display at monthly issue meetings that ITAA holds. Each meeting features a government speaker, often a CIO. During the question-and-answer period, the talk is issue-focused, and industry officials refrain from promoting their own products.

The speaker “doesn’t have to put up with a marketing pitch,” Grkavac said. In that way, a federal executive can learn about industry views in a relatively short time.

Grkavac said that on rare occasions, someone tries to break the rules. During the question-and-answer session at a recent meeting, for example, an attendee tried to segue from a question into a pitch for his firm. “He was hooted down,” she said, laughing.

Beyond lobbying

Soloway, a former Clinton administration official, said he has observed the IT industry group/federal-agency relationship from both sides of the fence. He said industry organizations sometimes exceed government’s expectations by producing work — a study, white paper or detailed testimony — that goes beyond position advocacy and provides valuable research. Soloway said Clinton administration officials would often assess the work of industry groups by asking the question: Does their work go beyond position advocacy and add value as policy analysis?

“It’s not enough to lobby,” Soloway said. “You have to provide context and perspective.”

As an example, he mentioned PSC’s work on contracting in Iraq. After gathering information from council members, PSC put together a detailed report on what is taking place on the ground there, he said. Such work is valuable for policy-makers seeking a clear understanding of the contracting situation in Iraq.

“A lot of our analysis is less tied to specific policy recommendations and more tied to the broader government implications,” Soloway said.

That role also holds for face-to-face meetings with federal policy-makers, Soloway said. Instead of single-mindedly hammering away at a position, industry organizations often can exceed government’s expectations by participating in discussions and exploring alternatives. Both sides can work through disagreements by reframing issues and offering detailed analyses, he said.

“You’re only effective,” Soloway said, “if you can bring substance to the table.”

Tarallo is a freelance writer in Washington.


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