Selling solutions -- not products -- is key to winning business from Washington
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Want to land IT engagements from the feds? Now may be the time to act.
The federal government is ramping up its technology budget and seeking help from solution-minded systems integrators like Scott Rover, business development manager for the mobile and wireless team at GTSI, Chantilly, Va.
By 2005, the federal government is projected to contract out $40.3 billion in IT products and services, a 28 percent increase from $31.6 billion last year, according to Input, a Chantilly-based market-research firm. This year alone, those outlays are slated to climb 5.7 percent to $33.4 billion, followed by a 6.3 percent increase to $35.5 billion next year, Input reported.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, security- and defense-related technology stands to snare the most federal IT dollars. Input forecasts that the federal government will triple security expenditures from $1.3 billion in 2001 to more than $4.1 billion in 2005. And President George W. Bush's proposed 2003 budget calls for the Department of Defense to get $2.6 billion more for IT spending than it received this year, according to an Input report.
Solution providers say the federal government's demand for security technology is opening the door for IT projects of all kinds, especially as departments and agencies seek greater operational efficiencies in the slow economy. The Defense Department and armed services contract out the most IT services, but the Treasury, Transportation, Justice, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture departments were among the top 10 federal entities purchasing high-tech services in 2001 and are expected to maintain that demand through 2006, according to Input.
The way solution providers can win that business is to be an enabler, GTSI's Rover said. "[GTSI is not trying to lean on the theme of Sept. 11. We are doing what our government clients request," he said. For example, the integrator developed an application that allows Army and Navy medical staff to access central databases and update patient information or download health-care data using handheld devices.
What federal government clients want are solutions that solve specific problems, according to Rover. "How do I take mission-critical data and help people to stay in touch without being tethered to a desktop or a server?" he said, referring to the Army/Navy remote-access application. "We have partners like Onset Technology and AvantGo, [whose products let people in the field stay as connected as someone at a desk."
Hawking products isn't the best formula for success in the federal government market, industry observers say. For instance, a Department of Labor official looking to bring a financial management system in line with new federal standards might not respond to a pitch about how a certain product could help achieve that goal, said Ray Bjorklund, vice president of consulting services at Federal Sources Inc. (FSI), a McLean, Va.-based consulting firm specializing in the public-sector IT market.
"We are seeing much more solutions-selling," Bjorklund said. "Winning federal engagements requires someone who can think through a solution."
Last summer, President Bush named Unisys executive Mark Forman to the post of associate director for IT and e-government at the Office of Management and Budget, the executive branch's budgetary arm. In an interview with CRN shortly after his appointment, Forman noted that the government seeks assistance from IT professionals that offer complete solutions, not just hardware and software upgrades.
"[It's not so much, 'How do I sell e-procurement software to the government?' but 'How can I help them understand and deliver supply chain integration?' " Forman said. A common thread in any solution,no matter what the technology,is that it should improve electronic interaction between citizens and federal agencies or help agencies share data more efficiently, he said.
But other criteria also figure in winning federal business, according to solution providers. For example, government entities don't always rank cost savings at the top of the list when implementing an IT solution, said Roger Baker, executive vice president of telecommunications and information assurance at CACI, Arlington, Va.
"What there is not in the government is a profit motive," said Baker, a former CIO at the Department of Commerce and former vice president of engineering and operations at Visa Interactive, a defunct e-banking unit of Visa. "You can't just go make a business case that [a solution will save money. Dollars do matter, but you have to be willing to accept that there can be other issues, such as privacy or security of information. Sometimes there are political necessities in keeping things apart."
Since the New York and Washington terrorist attacks, data sharing has become a top priority among federal agencies. Solution providers say the Defense Department, CIA, FBI, Federal Aviation Administration and other government entities are taking a hard look at how to pool information that affects national security.
"There is a lot more emphasis on interagency exchange since Sept. 11," said Glenn Giles, vice president of the federal solutions group at Keane, a Boston-based integrator. "What that has parlayed into for us is [helping clients look at how to realign an organization's culture so it will be prone to sharing data."
The Bush administration, for instance, is reportedly mulling whether to meld the Immigration and Naturalization Service with the U.S. Customs Service to bolster border security, visa approval and other functions. Also, various government and military intelligence entities are in talks with the Department of Transportation and the newly formed Transportation Security Administration to devise ways of sharing information about airline passengers, baggage screening and other areas.
As federal departments look to reduce or remove interagency barriers, more opportunities to reinvent and integrate their myriad information systems are surfacing, solution providers say. "The hard-core technical aspect is how you develop IT architectures for agencies that allow that," Giles said.
Solution providers also can serve in a consulting role by outlining courses of action that government entities can take. "We do the social brokering," CACI's Baker said. "We get them to figure out what they can and can't do, what they are willing to put real effort into and what they will cooperate on."
To win government IT business, solution providers must follow certain rules of the game, industry executives say. That means they'll need to become fluent in "federalese," or the tangle of terms, procedures and politics involved in the federal contract process.
"The government demands a deep understanding of its business, procurement policies and regulations," said Charles Prow, a partner at PwC Consulting, who oversees the New York-based firm's government services delivery division.
Keane's Giles,who has worked in the public sector since 1976, including a stint at one of the federal intelligence agencies,said his group has "a thorough knowledge of the federal government market space: the strictures they have, the regulatory aspects and the things that control how federal executives have to do business."
Some solution providers hire former government and military officials to help them prepare bids that meet federal specifications, cut through bureaucratic red tape, and respect the idiosyncrasies of the federal system. FSI, for one, advises integrators, VARs and other clients interested in selling to the government by providing information on everything from how to get on General Services Administration (GSA) procurement schedules to identifying the best bids to pursue, Bjorklund said.
"The [GSA paperwork can be fairly intense," said Cindi Manning, vice president of operations at NetCom Solutions Government Services, a Chantilly-based solution provider that recently earned a spot on the GSA's IT schedule. NetCom used a consultant to help it get on the list, Manning said.
Rules and regulations aside, solution providers that have worked only in the private sector,especially with customers such as banks or manufacturers,can leverage that expertise to win federal business. "The government wants to buy commercial best practices," said PwC's Prow. "Most of our large-scale solutions have a framework in commercial best practices."
An effective implementation for a commercial client can open doors to government projects, according to GTSI's Rover. "If you can convey how that solution can be adapted to their specific needs, then you can make that analogy for them," he said.
As in the private sector, a successful project for a government client often leads to new or repeat business, solution providers say. Overland Park, Kan.-based NIC, for example, found that its work for the Federal Election Commission became a springboard for engagements to build Web portals for 15 states, as well as more federal work, according to Chris Neff, the solution provider's marketing director.
"I think [federal business would be off-limits to us if we were a new company or if we didn't understand a thing about the federal government," Neff said. NIC has business development staff constantly working with federal agencies to unearth new opportunities, he added.
Partnering with a firm that's already tied in to government business is another way to gain a foothold in federal engagements. PwC typically enlists other solution providers for pieces of a large-scale federal implementation, Prow said. And on the other end, GTSI has landed federal IT work from KPMG Consulting and SAIC, Rover said.
"They'll come to us because they are the lead contractor," he explained, adding that KPMG may want to farm out the development of a wireless LAN to GTSI, for example.
GTSI also acts as the lead contractor in some projects. "We have local partners that do development around Web portals or CRM [applications," Rover said. "Our federal customers trust us to bring this all together for them."