ACQUISITION

What we have here is a failure to communicate

Fed-contractor talks break down around inexperience, risk, misconceptions

No matter the procurement problem—furlough protocol, LPTA, similar issues—the answer is to “communicate with your government customer.” But that’s not good enough. Communication itself is a problem facing government and industry, and until both sides tackle it, they are stuck where they are.

There is a number of reasons why government and industry fail to effectively communicate. “Nobody [in government] wants to be the one who appears to be favoring a specific contractor,” said Paul DeBolt, partner and co-chair at the Venable law firm, speaking at a Northern Virginia Technology council panel on Thursday.

It could be a generational issue. “[Many contracting officials] didn’t grow up talking on the phone; they grew up texting, they grew up with Snapchat, they make Vines,” DeBolt said.

“Half of the federal acquisition workforce has less than 10 years [of experience], and half of [that 10 percent] has less than five years of experience,” said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel at the Professional Services Council.  “It’s not surprising that we’re seeing some reluctance to communicate because they’re not sure what they can do and how to do it.”

Not to mention that being as inexperienced as they are, the newer workforce is risk-adverse, said Kenneth Dodds, director, Office of Policy, Planning & Liason, Small Business Administration. “They don’t want to make a mistake and get into a trouble," he said.

But the issue goes much deeper. Rob Burton, partner at Venable Government Contracts Group and moderator of the panel, mentioned two memos entitled “Myth-Busting” that were put out by his former place of employment, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, that contained almost 30 pages of dialogue meant to aid communication.

“Just yesterday, I was talking to a senior procurement executive in a federal agency who was very forthright and said ‘yeah, that 27 pages was a little long, I never read it,’” Burton said.

While this would be striking, the problem really is not senior procurement officials, Chvotkin said. Since “Myth-Busting” highlights a communication problem, it is a great memo, but it should not have been directed at the senior executives. “At that level, it’s generally not a problem; it is at the working level, it is at the contracting officer level,” he said.

Lawyers can be an obstacle to effective communication, as well, cautioning their officers and program folks about communication, said Chovtkin, himself a lawyer. “In fact, Dan Gordon, author of the first ‘Myth-Busting’ memo commented publicly that his biggest challenge was convincing the lawyers to allow the communications to take place,” he said.

Kevin Plexico, vice president, information solutions at Deltek makes a distinction between two types of communication: one-to-one communication and one-to-many communication. “The challenge I see is, frankly, there’s just a lot more of you [contractors] than there are government people to meet with, and they can’t take all of your meetings,” he said.

To him, that boils down to the art of selling and business development—finding ways to get ahead of the competition and actually talk with your customer. DeBolt agreed. “You have to adjust your business development strategies and your management strategies to account for that lack of communication,” he said.

One-to-many type communication is tied to the government’s curtailing of travel and participation in industry events, Plexico said, which was one of the first things agencies nixed when looking for ways to cut spending.

“I will say that there are some agencies that do it really well,” Plexico added, like “the way GSA orchestrated the OASIS procurement, and the amount of industry days they had, as well as participation in some of [industry] events.” Perhaps industry should expose that strategy to some of the agencies that are not doing well with communication, Plexico said.

A lot of times, when industry goes to government for answers on procurement, the contractors are simply referred to the agency’s website. Again, that’s not good enough. “Government people, in my view, are using information sharing as a substitute for actual communication,” Burton said.

Of course, all of the blame shouldn't fall with the government.  “I don’t think we do a good job of knowing when to ask for information and what to ask for,” Chvotkin said. “So, sending the BD folks in to the agency to go and try to draw out information with a sales mentality is often not the best way to communicate with an acquisition workforce.”

Sending the technical people in to talk to other technical people makes some sense, Chvotkin added, but regardless, the communication has to be planned and well thought out before it happens.

And it needs to happen, period.

About the Author

Mark Hoover is a senior staff writer with Washington Technology. You can contact him at mhoover@washingtontechnology.com, or connect with him on Twitter at @mhooverWT.

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