Bureaucracy Hampers Government Sales

Channel providers and integrators looking to tap into the lucrative state and local government markets must be prepared to sooth bureaucratic constituencies.

That's a fancy way of saying "play politics."

Everyone knows that government sales cycles are elongated compared to commercial sectors. Integrators will spend inordinate amounts of time and cash going after government projects. The reason, explains Teri Takai, is the decentralized nature of state and local bureaucracies.

"You must do a lot of education and negotiation internally to get our constituencies to agree on IT approaches," says Takai, the state of Michigan's CIO and the newly named vice president of the National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO). "Vendors must engage from the beginning and be willing to support the process without a guarantee that they will get the business."

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Unlike private-sector businesses, government bureaucracies on every level live and die by their annual budgets. Administrators and department heads fiercely protect their turfs because any attempt to centralize processes means a loss of budget and head count, which in turns means diminished status in the larger bureaucratic universe. What state CIOs face is a legacy of decentralized administrations, in which bureaucrats must be cajoled into accepting standardized, centralized solutions that create efficiencies beyond individual departments.

"People don't look at things from an enterprisewide and long-term total cost of operation," says Terry Savage, CIO of the state of Nevada.

State CIOs are working to bring their disparate IT infrastructures under centralized control. Savage and others point out that decentralized systems are fraught with systems that cannot interoperate. One of the lessons learned by Louisiana and Mississippi IT leaders following Hurricane Katrina is that lack of standardized communications systems hampered command and control of relief efforts.

But it will take time to reign in decentralized infrastructures. Even with centralized IT governance, such as Takai's in Michigan, in which the CIO has budget and oversight of all IT deployments, it still takes time to build consensus for new initiatives. This translates into longer sales cycles in which the vendor and purchasing agent must work together in lobbying various government constituencies into accepting a single solution. And this, Takai says, happens even before an RFP is written or bids are accepted. Takai and her fellow state CIOs admit that isn't the most attractive sales opportunity, but vendors and solutions providers have to engage in the process even if they don't win the contract.

"They have an understanding that business on the street benefits everyone," Takai says.

The best thing government solution providers can do is understand how the IT value proposition is different from the private sector. Rather than trying to demonstrate the latest whiz-bang gadget, solution providers must show ROI in terms of reducing costs and improving service.

"No one cares that you're providing a fantastic IS solution. They care that your graduation rate is going up. That your recidivisms rate is going down. And that the streets are safer," says Matthew Miszewski, CIO of Wisconsin's Division of Enterprise Technology in the state Department of Administration. "We got obsessed in the '90s with bits and bytes, and it wasn't good for the industry or states. I don't care about IT, per se. I care about supporting my governors, my counties, my mayor's goals. That's what gets me up in the mornings."

And most state CIOs attending this week's NASCIO annual conference in San Diego this week agree that solution providers that bring valuable IT systems and a willingness to be partners in the bureaucratic process are the ones that will garner the most success.