Another View: Here's an idea: Face common foes

Mimi Browning

The gap between government workers and contractors continues to shrink, yet there are still myths and challenges on both sides. Federal and contract workers should consider some strategies to further close the gap.

Nothing binds people together like having a common enemy. Government and contract workers face two common foes.

The first is stereotypes. There's a widespread perception of contractors as greedy, sleazy vendors and feds as pointy-headed, shiftless bureaucrats, but people who fit these stereotypes make up only a tiny portion of the workforce. Individuals in both camps want to do an exceptional job, perform professionally satisfying tasks and get recognition. So drop the stereotyped mind-set.

A second common enemy is the lack of well-stated requirements. Whether it is the barnacled bureaucracy or the difficulty of coming to grips with a vision of how a project should proceed, the process of determining requirements is one of the main sources of problems in IT projects.
Best practices can help bridge the gap.

Government workers should:

  • Know the rules, written and unwritten, for working with contractors. Wherever you are in your agency's acquisition or executive realm, learn what you can and cannot divulge and when.

    An unwritten rule for dealing with contractors is to provide each of them with the same information on a requested topic. This practice plants ideas that may be harvested in the future and, in addition, covers the agency legally and ethically.

  • Challenge contractors with hard problems. Private-sector companies have lots of experience and intellectual capital. Talking to contractors about your world and its challenges lets them help you with capabilities beyond glossy public relations documents. Ask for ideas on how to meet a specific challenge.

  • Be a team partner with your contractor. Consider contractors part of your team and interact with them in the same professional way you do with your government staff. Recognize the good ones and get the bad ones to shape up or ship out. Take time to listen to criticism and catch problems in the early stages.

Contractors should:

  • Understand that a soft sell is better than a hard sell. The worst thing you can do is walk into a government executive's office, flip open your notebook PC, extol the marvels of your analytical toosl and talk the entire time. Government people want you to listen to them. Listen, ask questions and start building long-term trust. Bring something extra such as a technical paper, briefing or book relevant to their mission. You want a return engagement.

  • Deliver more than expected. Government managers expect you to deliver goods and services on time, within budget and according to specifications. But going the extra mile pays big dividends for your reputation and may bring in future work. Whether it is helping out in a pinch or providing sound options for a tough decision, make sure you get top marks for performance.

  • View government people as lifelong clients, not one-time customers. Your attitude and actions speak more about you and your company than all the checked-off items on a particular contract. Take time to build solid relationships with your government colleagues.

Mimi Browning is a former Army senior executive who is a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton of McLean,Va. She can be reached at browning_miriam@bah.com.

About the Author

Browning is a former Army senior executives and former Booz Allen Hamilton principal who now leads Browning Consultants.

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