Ross Wilkers

STRATEGY

How ICF brings its commercial chops to the federal market

Technology modernization and digital transformation with a strong commercial bent are no longer emerging buzz words. They are raging in the government market thanks to increases in both funding and policy attention on upgrades of IT environments.

This seemingly presents opportunity for contractors working both at the so-called “tip of the spear” of IT systems integration, and the strategy and implementation side. One large player in the latter picture is ICF, the global technology consultant with footprints in both the public sector and commercial markets.

So how does Fairfax, Virginia-based ICF gain its foothold in a once-again growing, more competitive and still fragmented government services?

I spoke with Ellen Glover, executive vice president and head of government work for ICF, who explained how the nearly five-decade old company finds its place alongside agencies on or about to go on the transformation path. Employee brain power is a cornerstone of its broader offering, she said.

“In a lot of the programs you really need to understand what the issues are but you also need people with the expertise in how to put a system together and how to communicate the value to the citizenry,” Glover said.

ICF concentrates its federal business -- 45 percent of its 2017 $1.2 billion revenue -- on four main types of work:

  • Advisory services
  • Program implementation
  • Research and data analytics
  • Digital engagement

For each of those areas, Glover summarizes ICF’s approach as offering subject matter expertise with backgrounds and skills in IT, engineering and program management to “bring something a little different to the customer.”

That approach is evident in ICF’s federal cyber business. Within the past year, that shop has added several large jobs with the Air Force and Army that center around research-and-development and advisory work. An Air Force project calls on ICF to help the branch transition the bulk of its core cyberspace function from one organization to another.

Another with the Army Research Laboratory involves research into future cyber tools and techniques with an eye toward advancing network defense. But this scope goes beyond just the Army as ARL has other government customers for cyber defense.

Glover told me the project aims to benefit cyber defense efforts at 24 other agencies. “They use that operational expertise to do R&D work, so think about what new tools we could develop that would help in the detection and protection against cyber viruses or cyber attacks that are coming in,” she said.

Those tools are envisioned to find different ways to defend networks at scale, a task industry observers like Glover see as becoming ever more complex and expensive to carry out.

“You’re going to end up having to hire armies of people to constantly monitor everything,” she said. Automation can be part of that solution through “development of tools that can monitor things for you and highlight alerts” among other methods, Glover added.

Then there are the areas of citizen engagement and digital transformation, not just in helping modernize agencies’ technology environments but also bringing citizens’ experiences with government into the new age. Citizen integration is where ICF particularly tries to bring both its government and commercial sides to agencies. They are doing this with the company’s largest federal customer in the Health and Human Services Department.

ICF is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a communications campaign to raise awareness of opioid abuse risk amid the ongoing nationwide crisis. That involves helping CDC roll out digital advertisements and a social media presence -- an adjacency to ICF’s commercial marketing services arm.

“This is around awareness and prevention… and there the focus is on the research into the populations and what kind of messages reach those populations,” Glover said.

Digital transformation also is a place to bring commercial experience into federal environments, such as helping agencies map their journey to new ways of doing IT. That involves organizational development and change development to help agencies look at where they want to go holistically, Glover said.

One step forward by government came in March when the General Services Administration awarded five “IT Modernization Centers of Excellence” contracts. ICF was awarded two for customer experience and service delivery analytics. The overall effort aims to help not only citizens but federal employees to have a more modern experience with government services.

“It’s a very big challenge to do a digital transformation at an agency because they have very complex problems,” Glover said. “They always have to consider the people who are still getting snail mail. They can’t assume all of their clients are going to get on social media and they have to consider underserved populations.”

At a broader level, Glover said ICF commonly brings staffers from the commercial and federal sides into meetings to see what ideas have worked in certain programs and try new approaches as well.

“People enjoy that ability to see both sides,” Glover said. “The federal folks like that opportunity to participate with those on the commercial side. It makes the work more enjoyable… we’re not a monolith by any means.”

About the Author

Ross Wilkers is a senior staff writer for Washington Technology. He can be reached at rwilkers@washingtontechnology.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rosswilkers. Also find and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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