With an $80-plus billion IT budget at its disposal, the federal government is the single largest consumer of goods and services in the world and a huge potential customer for many tech startups. Yet too often, technology companies shy away from this market, causing them to miss out on this enormous market and depriving the government of technologies that could help solve major challenges.
Erwin Godoy, the chief innovation strategist at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) Enterprise Innovation Office, recently sat down with Meagan Metzger of Washington, D.C.-based accelerator Dcode42 to discuss why the tech world has barely scratched the surface of its full potential with the federal government, and what can be done to bring the two sides closer together.
Are government and industry like oil and water?
That’s the stereotypical view: that the federal government and tech industry go together like oil and water, government the buttoned-up bureaucrats, tech industry the hoodie-clad outsiders. But government and emerging tech companies may have more in common than they realize. Both are brimming with “true believers” — those who feel a deep passion and sense of mission for their work. They’re constantly asking themselves: what’s the next big challenge and how do we tackle it? And when it comes to the government, those big challenges are issues that can impact the direction of the country, even the world.
Godoy said that while there are differences in the way the two groups operate, the lack of connection often comes back to a failure to understand each other’s business and culture. He argued that there are two main factors that explain the lack of full collaboration between the government and what he called “non-traditionals” (a term that includes not just startups but companies from any industry that have not traditionally worked with the government).
Tolerance for risk and uncertainty. Godoy noted that the government views procurement and program management as a necessary stable and low-risk process. As stewards of taxpayer funds, they need to be careful and thorough about choosing vendors, and they’re often not even aware of what technologies are available outside of the usual, traditional solutions. Risk-taking is generally not rewarded, and failure could mean an embarrassing write-up in the Washington Post or long-term damage to their agency’s reputation. “[Government agencies] act a certain way because they’ve worked that way in the past, and it’s worked,” Godoy said. Tech companies, on the other hand, tend to embrace risk and see failure as a badge of honor, evidence that they’ve dreamed big and taken chances.
The great “Silicon Valley” culture gap. If you’ve spent time in Silicon Valley (or even just watched the show), you know there’s a distinct culture that doesn’t always mesh with how things work in D.C. For example:
Iterating every three weeks
Measured in years rather than months or weeks
Work schedule & urgency
Flexible, unpredictable, burning the midnight oil to stay ahead
Standard 9-to-5, five-day work week — sometimes not by choice
Flat organizational structure
Traditional, hierarchical, top-down
Should you lose the hoodie?
For their part, private sector companies must realize that, as Godoy said, “technology alone is not innovation, it’s what you do with it that makes something great.” Giving a standard “build and showcase” sales pitch won’t cut it when presenting for a government client; companies must do their homework and connect the dots to show the government audience the art of the possible.
“Companies need to demonstrate how their technology adds value to the agency, or else the agency will not feel the need to deviate from the status quo,” Godoy said. “And do so in a way that does not imply that you may be ‘smarter’ than the folks in the room. Remember, many of these folks have been shot at; their attitude about what constitutes success is a bit different.”
It’s important to be sensitive to culture differences, including being aware that Washington tends to be on the side of formality, the customary dress code, being on time to meetings, and understanding that government may operate on a different sort of timeline than you’re used to.
Finally, Godoy urged companies not to give up “just because you had a bad experience with one government agency. They are all different.”
Key takeaways for companies:
Help agencies see the art of the possible — not just your technology itself.
Engage with government-focused accelerators and incubators.
In part two of this commentary coming later this month, we’ll look at the flip-side of this issue: what’s going on with the government side and what the government can do to reach out to “non-traditionals.”
Meagan Metzger is the founder of Washington, D.C based accelerator Dcode42. She has worn many hats in the government market — from software design, quality assurance, operations, and program management, to developing go-to-market strategies, crafting marketing campaigns, and performing business development.