Stan Soloway

COMMENTARY

Tight budgets bring a silverlining

For years, the question of when the government might return to “regular order” –that is, a “normal” process in which appropriations are essentially completed by the end of September—has been a prominent one.

Agency leaders, industry, and others, have continually and appropriately harped on the deleterious impacts of the funding yo-yo that has dominated the scene for far too long.
And if there was one thing many hoped for as a result of having one party in control of both the White House and Congress, it was a return to regular order.

Well, it’s probably not going to happen. As virtually all recent reports have indicated, the budget debate within the parties, let alone between the parties, remains fierce and the chances of getting a full year fiscal 2018 funding bill by Sept. 30th are slim indeed.

President Trump's budget blueprint – the "skinny budget" -- generated plenty of debate; the release of his full proposed budget will only turn up the heat further. No  budget resolutions have yet been proposed, let alone passed, and no spending instructions given to the appropriations committees.  

Beyond that, consider what else Congress has to deal with over the next four months: the farm insurance bill; the children’s insurance program (CHIP); health care; possibly tax reform; and, of course, the debt ceiling. In other words, while a complex and many-layered debate is virtually certain, it has not yet really begun and one or more continuing resolutions appear almost certain. 

To complicate matters further, the Senate cannot even take up the budget until after it finishes with health care, because as soon as a budget bill is passed the rules change previously instituted by the Democrats (requiring only a majority vote) will revert back to the standard rule under which 60 votes will be needed.

Thus, the betting is that another continuing resolution, or a series of them, will be needed.

And that is never a good thing for smart planning and program execution.

Nonetheless, it would appear that over the years most agencies have actually gotten pretty good at adjusting to the external dynamics and finding a way to do their jobs. Even as agencies struggled with the White House's early budget instructions, most continued to operate relatively normally. And that has mostly carried over to the market as well.

Unlike what we saw with sequestration—the impacts of which were seen and felt months before it went into effect—the impacts of the potential or expected spending reductions are not reflected in a broad market slow-down. In fact, with the exception of State and EPA,  just the opposite seems to be happening. 

Through the first two quarters of fiscal 2017, civilian agency spending on professional services and IT both grew by double digits over the same period last year. At the Defense Department, for which we only have data for the first quarter, the pattern was the same (16 percent for professional services; 10 percent for IT).

And while it may seem counter-intuitive, this is actually consistent with what we’ve seen in recent years. Often, those agencies under the toughest budgetary pressures have also been those in which the market has performed best. 

Again, this is in part the result of agencies having learned to operate amidst the chaos. But more importantly, it appears to validate another key market dynamic: as agencies are forced to be more and more selective with their funding, their highest priority missions, and thus those most fully funded, tend to be highly tech-centric (cyber, analytics, automation, etc.).

Almost by definition, those missions require more private sector support than other, more routine operations. Thus, market growth in a constrained environment is not only possible, it is likely. 

Going forward, aside from major reductions in mission or service, agencies’ best hopes and strategies for dealing with the budget realities largely lie in aggressively expanding the degree to which they capitalize on opportunities to substantially reduce costs (and improve service) across the board, driven by the emergence of the digital economy.

It's happening across the commercial sector; and this budget could well catalyze a similar transition in government. 

This is not to say that predictability and stability should not still be a goal. It absolutely should be. Nor is it to suggest that some budget cuts won’t have very real negative impacts on segments of industry. They will.

But as the data and other trends suggest, stability may not be the holy grail it once appeared to be. Growing funding pressures and uncertainty place a growing onus on agencies to navigate the turbulence in new and innovative ways. Thus, far from being a market killer, it actually presents opportunity. 

About the Author

Stan Soloway is a former deputy undersecretary of Defense and former president and chief executive officer of the Professional Services Council. He is now the CEO of Celero Strategies.

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