Commentary by Timothy SullivanPartner, Thompson Coburn, LLP
This column was originally published on the Public Contracting Institute’s website and was republished here with permission from the organization. This post is the sixth in a 10-part series, “10 Myths of Government Contracting” and will be published weekly on Federal News Radio.com.
In the online world we live in, someone might believe that the only thing necessary to chase government business is to log...
In the online world we live in, someone might believe that the only thing necessary to chase government business is to log on to FedBizOpps. That would be a mistake. Indeed, many a veteran will tell you that by the time an opportunity appears on FedBizOpps it is too late to have a realistic opportunity for award. It may not be impossible, but it is going to be an uphill battle. It is true that a great deal of business can be conducted by sitting at your computer, but it is also true that email communications alone are inadequate without a personal relationship beneath them. Regardless of all of the rules and regulations that are in play in the context of a federal procurement, personal relationships matter in government contracting as much as they do in the commercial world, and you can’t build a meaningful relationship online. That is why it is important to employ men and women who know how to build these relationships or to employ organizations that can provide this essential ingredient.
Since 9/11, the security employed in federal buildings and on federal installations has increased to the point where the ability to simply walk in off the street has disappeared. You must have an appointment or you must already know someone you can call who will come down to escort you into the building. Meanwhile, the incumbent contractor, if there is one, has daily access to the customer’s decision makers. This access can often bloom into lasting friendships, mutual feelings of trust, socializing and (believe it or not) carpooling. Over time, this means something.
In addition, the government contracting world is infamous for its so called “revolving doors,” i.e., men and women who go from a government agency to a contractor and vice versa. There are a plethora of laws and regulations designed to combat the coziness and the advantages gained through the revolving-door process, but there are a lot of doors, and they have been revolving a long time. Experienced contractors are very careful to make sure that these laws and regulations are not violated. As a general rule, the more attractive a potential candidate is because of his or her position in the government, the more likely they are going to be saddled with strict conflict- of-interest restraints, including a period of time in which they are prohibited from dealing with their former agency on anything in which they were involved. Most “cooling off” periods for government employees are limited in their duration to a maximum of two years, so it is usually just a matter of time before someone can take advantage of the persons he or she has met while working in the government or working for a contractor. When I say “take advantage,” I do not mean to suggest anything improper. For example, merely knowing that a colonel or a senior civilian official in a particular agency will take your call because of your relationship puts you in a very good position vis-à-vis your competition.
FAR Part 15.201, “Exchanges With Industry Before Receipt of Proposals,” lists some of the many ways that government agencies can engage in a dialogue with contractors. The list includes industry or small business conferences, draft RFPs, Requests for Information and pre-solicitation conferences, among other things. You can bet that your competitors are engaging in all of these things, so simply attending these meetings or responding to something the government has sent out may not be enough for you. That is why you would do well to focus on one-on-one meetings, which are also on the list; and if you get those meetings, you want to make the most of them in terms of making the best impression possible on your audience In order to secure such a meeting, it helps to have a pre-existing relationship.
If you are new to government contracting or simply too small to employ the type of marketing team I am suggesting you need, there are experienced firms out there that will provide this for you on a commission basis (some may ask for a business development fee or retainer as well). The men and women who work at these firms usually have significant government experience on their resumes and they have established relationships that can inure to your benefit. They also know the ropes of government procurement and may be able to provide you with agency insights, useful historical information and, perhaps most important, help in writing proposals. It might make sense for you to be a smart consumer, talk to several of them to find out how they operate and what they have to offer, and then retain the one you think is the best fit. Nothing guarantees a contract award, but taking this approach increases your chances.
In a nutshell, a government contractor has to be every bit as aggressive as a commercial concern when it comes to marketing, but they have to be aware of the very different environment in which government contracting operates. There are strict regulations governing the entertainment of Government employees, and many of the major prime contractors have adopted similar restrictions. To succeed, the wise government contractor learns those rules and works within them. Staying on top of FedBizOpps is certainly one thing smart contractors do, but it is by no means the only thing.