Do you know the 5 challenges unique to transforming how the government does business?

Before getting to the challenges, CGI Federal’s Horace Blackman wants to share that, psst, the government as a whole is more innovative than the private secto...

Are there challenges facing the federal government and the contractors that support it? Most assuredly, says Horace Blackman of CGI Federal. But there’s no more exciting place when it comes to technology adoption and transforming business, he’s quick to add.

“Compared to our counterparts in the commercial sector, there’s more innovation being driven here because there’s a need to provide support for mission-critical areas of the government,” said Blackman, senior vice president for defense, intelligence and space at CGI Federal, during the American Society of Military Comptrollers’ The Business of Defense podcast on Federal News Network.

That’s not to dismiss the threats on the horizon, he said, noting that they are unique and different within government and “can have a significant impact on how we operate.”

During his conversation ASMC CEO Rich Brady, the podcast’s host, Blackman laid out those challenges but also offered practical tips for would-be contractors derived from his own experience working in both government and the private sector, and based on CGI Federal‘s nearly 50 years of helping government organizations evolve through technology adoption.

Five critical federal challenges

While much has changed in the government landscape over the decades, one thing has held true in recent years, Blackman noted: “We are in a growing market. The federal government is seeking to transform their business processes and leverage technology to increase their effectiveness and their efficiency. We’re seeing that continue to be their critical mission going forward. We don’t see that slowing down in any way, shape or form.”

But what are the challenges that both the government and its contractors face? Blackman detailed five that he thinks are of particular note and are inherent in the federal sphere:

  • Fiscal budget cycle and continuing resolutions: The year-by-year budgeting that encompasses all three branches of government makes it difficult to ensure that there’s adequate funding for programs year in and year out, he said.

Plus, “we sometimes are in a situation where the government may not have an active budget,” he said. “We go into the continuing resolution cycle that brings some challenges with it, and there’s some truncation of spend. We have to adjust to that.”

It’s not ideal, but the government and its contractors have to a degree adapted to it, Blackman said.

  • Debt ceiling limit: The potential for the U.S. to default on its debt could create extreme issues.

“That has the potential for a government shutdown that would have a significant impact on how we operate because there’s the potential for stoppage of work and the potential to impact some time and materials and cost-reimbursable contracts,” he said.

Although CGI Federal and other contractors have figured out how to manage through the CRs that have become a near-regular part of the budget process, the effect of a potential debt ceiling crisis is less known. How might it affect contracts? How might it stall or delay government services?

“We are watching it like everybody else,” Blackman said. “It is something that we are preparing for, and if it happens, we are positioned to do the things we need to do.”

  • Scale and scope: The government has no commercial competitors when it comes to the size of its operations and the relentless demand of its needs, he said.

“The federal government is literally orders of magnitude larger,” Blackman said. “If you think about moving materiel and people around, an Amazon warehouse may look dwarfed by some of the warehouses you see within the military in terms of prepositioning and deployment.”

He offered up the example of feeding breakfast to 5,000 sailors aboard a naval aircraft carrier. “That aircraft carrier is going to consume 15,000 eggs per day. And they have to move that many eggs across and have less than 15 minutes to do it or those eggs will spoil,” Blackman said. “That is the logistical challenge the likes of which even the best and most sophisticated online retailers don’t have to deal with. And that’s just eggs.”

  • Complexity of the environment: The government does not just work in offices. There are people on battlefields, at remote weather stations, in health care facilities, at disaster and crime scenes, and more. That sweep of complexity is something that commercial entities might never have to deal with, he said.

“The scale, the complexity, the mission focus — you’re operating on no-fail missions.”

  • Cybersecurity threats: On top of the fiscal and scale challenges, there’s a continual need to beat back cyberthreats, Blackman said.

Agencies and their contractors are under constant attack, he said. “The tolerance and the expectation from the general public for the government to maintain their information and to maintain the security of those assets is paramount.”

How to rise to the challenges of working in federal IT

Despite the unique environment, Blackman said he loves the work. For him, it’s about the mission, which he came to fully understand while working in technology at the Department of Veterans Affairs. It stoked a passion around helping agencies transform how they do business by leveraging technology, he said.

And he fully believes the government is moving as a whole and at a scale much quicker than the general public assumes — and certainly quicker collectively than the private sector.

“The government has been an early mover in mass and at scale. Look at implementing the cloud — much faster than the private sector,” Blackman said. The private sector has pockets that move pretty fast, he said. “But as a rule, they’re not standardized. They don’t all move the same. Different companies move at different speeds.”

Blackman offered three tips for companies that want to work in the federal marketplace and grow as government contractors.

First, take risks, he advised. “Don’t be reckless but take risks. Try something that might not sound so exciting. You might find that it actually is when you get into it.”

Second, be a life-long learner. “Focus on how much you can learn and where you can develop critical skills that will help you evolve, not just in terms of today’s technology,” Blackman said.

Finally, seek out others dedicated to mission, he said. “You can teach anybody any technology, and you can teach them how to do any role, but you can’t teach them to have a commitment and a mission.”

To listen to the full discussion between Horace Blackman, senior vice president of CGI Federal, and Rich Brady, CEO at the American Society of Military Comptrollers, click the podcast play button below:

Discover other The Business of Defense podcasts here.

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