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Our role as contractors: understanding constraints, solving for needs

As performance and outcomes-driven professionals, we contractors strive to be “good” at our jobs. Over years of trying to figure out what makes a “good” government contractor in the eyes of government leaders, I’ve finally come to a relatively simple conclusion:

The job of a contractor—why we exist at all—is to meet the needs of clients who are operating under incredible constraints.

We do that by understanding the nuances of public sector work, listening to our clients, understanding their challenges, and then helping them find creative, pragmatic, often incremental solutions.

I’ve gleaned some observations over the years in terms of these unique constraints, and how best to rise to the challenge of tackling them.

Public sector constraints are unique, but often shared across agencies

Whenever I bring in someone fresh from the private sector, their first reaction to hearing of the challenges faced by our clients is the same: “why don’t they just ________?!” The end of that question is usually something like “change platforms,” or “adjust their security tolerance,” or “agree on a strategy.”

What they come to understand is also one of the foundational truths of working in partnership with the public sector: government agencies operate under real constraints, and those constraints are different from those faced outside of government. You can’t just throw more people or budget at a problem. There are major implications that the private sector never (or rarely) has to consider.

Typically, I find these constraints fall into four broad categories. None will come as a surprise to our government colleagues, for whom these constraints are often built into the fiber of their operational structures.

  • Financial. Budgets are not as fluid in the public sector and are often subject to influences far outside the direct client decision-makers. Our role is to help clients be best prepared for the ebbs and flows of budgetary cycles, and best able to spend productively to achieve results.
  • Technical. Due in part to financial constraints, but also due to the fact that most government agencies have been around a lot longer than most companies, government CIOs and CTOs are often dealing with years of technical debt that encumbers and restricts change.
  • Legislative/Regulatory. While private sector companies operate under regulation and rule, that environment isn’t nearly as tight as the restrictions under which government agencies run.
  • Structural. This final category comes up far more often than it is recognized. Private sector companies have remarkable agility about adapting to the future. Lucky them! Those new to government contracting must realize within an agency, a move like creating a new division requires dismantling and rearranging massive, hierarchical infrastructures. 

Agency needs, however, are simply unique

While the above constraints generally apply to most government agencies, the other half of the equation is much more unique to individual agencies.

Understanding a client’s real needs takes a genuine commitment to long-term involvement and, more importantly, actual listening. Our clients generally want to tell us what their needs and problems are. They don’t take extra time to engage with contractors because everything is going really well—they have problems and issues that need resolving.

In my experience, every good client relationship I’ve had has started with, and constantly returned to, an honest desire to listen, clarify, and help solve their problems.

The trick, as much as there is one, is to be simultaneously prepared and ready to bring forward creative solutions quickly. Do the homework. Ask if you’re right. In your conversations, help explore solutions. Bring forward experts who have solved similar problems in the private sector, or offer connections to other government clients who have gone through the same ordeals. In five words: try to help, not sell.

Putting it all together

The good contractors I’ve seen understand both government constraints and client needs, and then repeatedly find a way to offer real-world, creative solutions. They provide flexibility and innovation when their clients feel rigid and restrained. They focus on delivering pragmatic, achievable, measurable solutions. Mostly, they show their value by providing solutions that respect the constraints of our clients while never being limited by them.

How else do good contractors succeed in serving the government? By hiring the most experienced, best-in-class consultants, like my colleague Verlinda Paul, to solve for government’s unique needs.