Mimi Browning | When interests conflict

Another View'commentary: Tacit rules for government/contractor relationships

CONFLICT-OF-INTEREST situations between government and contractors are once again in the headlines. Stories abound about congressional favors to hometown contractors, government officials selecting contractors based mainly on personal ties, and military media advisers who take advantage of their connections to current and former employers for visibility or personal gain.

These ethical lapses make many government information technology and project managers jittery when dealing with their private-sector counterparts. This is unfortunate because each side relies on the other to get government business done.

Further, the networking-savvy generations of government managers who routinely and easily interact with contractors are retiring. Many in the next generations, more comfortable with technology than people, now ask how to deal one-on-one with their private-sector colleagues.

Where to begin? First, government and private-sector firms have ethics regulations and training resources that provide guidelines governing government/contractor business and relationships.

Knowledge and practice of these rules cover most situations, and ethics officers or lawyers can provide advice on specific situations. Second, there are some tacit rules of the game that are worth reviewing:

Foster trusted communications. Communications between government managers and contractors, especially when it comes to IT projects, are essential to exchanging mutually beneficial information and developing trusted relationships. The basic ethics rule for government managers is to impart the same nonproprietary information to all contractors.

Savvy government managers also provide contractors with important information on mission requirements and challenges; technology capabilities needed; and the acquisition, political and budgetary landscapes. Savvy contractors listen well, provide relevant information on their capabilities and performance, and go the extra mile for their clients.

Government managers who treat contractors poorly or want endless free demo projects and contractors who only market their wares or angle for insider information will shut down the flow of trusted communications.

Understand agendas. Contractors naturally want to understand how government requirements synchronize with their products and services ' and shape acquisition strategies that favor their companies. They also want to get a sense of how the competition is doing and uncover future business opportunities.

Good contractors aspire to be long-term, trusted business partners with their government clients. If they do this well, they position their companies for future work and themselves for promotion ' but there are, of course, no guarantees.

Government managers, on the other hand, seek to solve ill-defined problems on a short deadline, understand what differentiates one firm from another and minimize risk ' and they do not like to be beholden to any one contractor. If they do this well, their agencies will shine and they, too, will get promoted.

Go the extra mile. Too frequently, neither contractors nor government managers take time to impart rich information. Contractors know the risks and resources needed to successfully complete IT projects, and they often know the best contract vehicles for price and ease of use.

Government managers want to know about private-sector best practices; new technologies; and tangible results in the form of money saved, mission operations improved or both. Candid, in-depth discussions between government managers and contractors can help meet mission requirements and reduce the risks associated with IT projects.

When in doubt, back away. There is a small set of contractors who use favors to gain insider information or preferential treatment from government officials. And there is a small set of people in government who can be bought.

Ethics regulations and criminal laws are clear on the consequences of such behavior.

Wise government managers and contractors recognize a potentially unsavory conflict of interest and will back away or seek legal advice. The government/ contractor IT community honors its heroes with great rewards and has a long memory for wrongdoing.

Browning (mimi@ browningcg.com) is president of Browning Consulting Group, and a former Army senior executive.

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