Contractors, agencies share in the innovation culture challenge

Employee engagement and maintaining team culture has been agenda item number one for government contractors and agencies since the pandemic started, with encouraging innovation being a key cog in said culture. That challenge plays out almost equally on both sides of the public sector ecosystem.

During the pandemic, perhaps no other aspect of running a federal contractor or government agency has taken more prominence than employee engagement and maintaining team culture with most of everyone physically dispersed and digitally connected.

One aspect of that goal is keeping in place and bolstering their cultures of innovation to encourage participation and buy-in from all people, ranging from the most senior leadership levels down to the rank-and-file.

Both contractor and customer face that challenge on a roughly equal basis, a group of panelists said Wednesday at the Government Contracting Conference co-hosted by George Mason University and the Defense Acquisition University.

Speakers for that panel were ICF CEO John Wasson; Interactive Government Holdings’ CEO and founder Michael Sanders; and former Homeland Security Department Chief Procurement Officer Soraya Correa.

Freedom to think and at least start creating ideas is an obvious component of maintaining that culture of innovation, noted Wasson with an observation of what he has seen in ICF’s team regarding time management.

“One of the biggest challenges I find is people get so overscheduled that they can’t spend the time to think, do the innovation and step back,” Wasson said. “You have to make time for it, you have to be visible.”

Sanders, who started his company in 2005, referenced the never-ending and always-heating race for technology talent against other companies well outside of the government sector like Apple and Tesla.

Not that being an innovator is limited to that group of companies, according to Sanders.

“You have to make it more about the mission, more about the impacts they’re going to have at the company, impacts they’re going to have in the community, at the agency, and the nation as a whole,” he said.

“The impact can become a lot greater of an X factor than the compensation for some people that are just entering the market.”

Correa, who retired from DHS in July, described how that agency segmented its internal procurement innovation lab so the group could focus on coming up with new ideas. What was once a single member is now either six or seven, she said.

“I didn’t want them doing the procurement, I want the procurement teams doing the procurement,” Correa said. “I want the innovation to come from the contracting officers, the folks that are out there doing the day-to-day work, because they have really good ideas: they’re just sometimes afraid to implement them.

"They need to have a sounding board, someone they can go to and vet that idea, think it through with them, and help bring the rest of the members of the teams together.”