John Klossner

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Klossner: Speaking of diners and government contractors

I just returned from a car trip. Driving on long trips can be frustrating. Not because of the traffic. Not because of the expense. Not because of the road construction during the busiest holiday travel period of the season. Not because it feels as if the radio spectrum is filled with the same stations, with different players, every mile of the way. No. My frustrations center around the eternal struggle between time and food. If I want to make my trip as quickly as possible, I have to eat near the highway.

If I want to find something other than chain restaurant fare, I lose time. (I know, I know — pack my own food, saving even more time. Let's just say this is a long trip, and I ran out of Cheez-Its and iced tea 350 miles ago.)

And the turnpikes and interstates, similar to the radio waves, are filled with different versions of the same restaurant. If I want to avoid a Conestoga-length trip, I have to eat at one of these pizzachickenwrapwithfriesandmaybeafrozenyogurtifyouwantsomethingdifferent places.

I would love to take the time to hit a blue highway, wander to the nearest downtown and find the lunch counter where all the locals go. Maybe it has homemade soup. Maybe homemade bread. Onion rings to die for. Perhaps a pie cupboard. (I was once told, when looking for food near an airport, to look for the place where all the taxi drivers are parked and eating. It is one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received.)

But there are problems:

1. The first time, all local places are a risk. Things can go very, very wrong. Even if 99 out of 100 experiences are good, that one will always be at the front of your mind.

2. That nasty time thing pops up again.

Think of agency contracting officers as being on a long drive but having to make record time. They are going to stop at the known commodities. Or, if they are not hungry, they'll go to the mall rather than search around some remodeled warehouse for a funky store on the third floor. This is not meant as a criticism. It's just an acknowledgment of the realities program managers face. The bigger suppliers are known, they offer a wider variety of services, and odds are they have a representative in the building or at least in your cellphone address book. To ask program managers to seek and find small businesses makes as much time sense as asking them to hand-knit cord covers for the office.

So how to get the small and midsize companies the attention — and contracts — they deserve? We are told of program managers getting added incentives in their performance reviews for finding small businesses. But as regulations bring more business to smaller vendors, we hear of troubles for midsize vendors, who aren't big enough to be part of the Rolodex/address book crowd yet don't qualify for small-business incentives.

I could point out that relying on one or two large contractors, similar to eating at the same place every meal, can go wrong or get stale quickly. I could point out that a sharp program manager would be paying attention to the markets and vendors large and small, and that it makes good business sense to have a variety of solutions available. I could switch metaphors in mid-blog and say that relying on the same contractors for all agency needs is the equivalent of playing golf with one club.

But I'd prefer to stick with my food theme and picture the marketplace as a potluck holiday party. You can run to the local convenience store on your way and find some cheese and crackers, or buy a box of cookies with a label that makes them look like they were made at some small exclusive bakery but were actually in aisle five near the floor, and that would solve the problem. The party would go on, everyone would eat, no hassle. But if you, the program manager, took the time to make those simple yet tasty chocolate chip and cranberry cookies, or a homemade peach and blueberry pie, you would be the talk of the party, once again bringing honor upon yourself.

Of course, this would ensure your getting invited to all future agency functions with the assumption that you were always going to make some delectable homemade treat, giving you yet another responsibility in an already too-full schedule.

It's not easy being a program manager.

Posted on Sep 09, 2008 at 12:18 PM


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