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Legislation threatens progress on agency-industry partnerships

Jul. 22, 2012 - 03:15PM   |  
By KIMBERLEY HAYES   |   Comments

For years, agencies and the contractor community have been working to build and improve communications channels. The idea was to allow a free-flowing exchange of ideas and lessons learned, breaking down barriers and ultimately providing better service to the citizen.

But recent transgressions at the General Services Administration and legislation moving through Congress threaten to turn back progress, impede government employees from valuable training opportunities, and chill the government-industry relationship.

Public-private collaboration is a mainstay of the federal information technology community in everything from cloud computing and cybersecurity to mobility and shared services. Partnerships are building the nation’s new energy infrastructure through the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel. They are connecting citizens, businesses, industry and researchers to develop new transportation solutions through the Digital Transportation Exchange Initiative.

During the UBM Channel’s XChange Public Sector conference in June, former Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi was quoted as saying, “Government can and must improve the cost, productivity, speed and quality of the services it provides. And the only way that can happen is through partnerships. Public-private partnerships; local, state and federal alliances; and alliances with small businesses and multinational companies are all in the mix.”Public-private cooperation is clearly a priority for the current administration. A pillar of the Office of Management and Budget’s 25-point plan to reform IT management is to “increase engagement with industry.” This year’s “myth-busters” campaign from the Office of Federal Procurement Policy builds on last year’s successes, aiming to correct misunderstandings about how industry and government can engage with each other. False assumptions — that agencies can’t meet one-on-one with industry, or that communicating with industry is akin to communicating with registered lobbyists — impede collaboration.

Agencies have taken aggressive strides to strengthen ties, but this progress is in jeopardy.

Recent revelations regarding wasteful spending at the 2010 GSA Western Regions Conference have increased scrutiny on all events — a common platform for government-industry collaboration — and, in part, have led to the cancellation of conferences.

Now, every educational event and conference raises suspicion, reducing agencies’ ability to share their perspective with industry and industry’s ability to contribute to the dialogue on pressing government trends. This creates a chilling effect on collaboration and builds a culture that distances government executives from the solutions they seek — whether those are technological, organizational or governance-based.

What do we risk by overreacting? We risk programs that are misaligned to mission needs. We risk projects that go over budget and problems that don’t get solved because they are never adequately communicated. We risk losing efficiencies that come from face-to-face communication of lessons learned and best practices. We risk more government waste and less-effective government service.

Rather than focus on the negative, we should ask another question: How can we build on the progress that has been gained to create an environment where government workers and contractors can truly collaborate? How do we ensure that we learn from experience, address the issues, and move forward? Let’s not start rebuilding the walls we have spent so much time tearing down. Let’s ensure we work together to focus on budget shortfalls and help reduce costs. Let’s work together to deliver a more efficient government and implement programs that better serve the citizen.

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Kimberley Hayes is president of the consulting firm The Ambit Group.

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