Recently at the National Contract Management Association’s World Congress in Denver, the clouds and storms that rolled into the mile-high city were harbingers of things to come for the week as the relationship between government and industry seems to continue a downward trend at a time when it needs to improve. However, it is the current adversarial atmosphere that was on full display at the conference and illustrated the difficulties that lay ahead in improving and creating an environment of productive communications.
The conference kicked off with an address by Linda Hudson, CEO for BAE Systems, who explained the difficulties that businesses currently face, and the troubles that are on the horizon. A panel session proceeded immediately following the speech, aptly entitled “Show Me the Money—Corporate Survival in Tough Economic Times.”
It is simply a matter a fact that budgets will shrink or remain flat for the foreseeable future, and businesses must adjust to this reality. However, another reality is the ever increasing pile of regulations, oversight, and scrutiny that contractors must continue to deal with. From new ethics regulations, numerous reporting requirements, and ever increasing mandates on security, contractors must comply with this new environment and the subsequent increases in costs of doing business. There simply is no choice, either comply or fold. It is this compliance with current, and what can only be more and more future regulations and increasing oversight, that creates the choices for industry in how they can try to remain competitive. These choices will result in increasing layoffs, scaling back of benefits, decreasing small business subcontracting opportunities, and a restructuring of the industrial base to remain viable and profitable.
Further exacerbating the issue is the continued focus on risk-transference to industry through more and more focus on fixed price contracts, regardless of requirements. Because requirements continue to be poorly or inadequately defined, the result is increased costs to both industry and government in time and money to adhere to a construct that should have never been developed in the first place. This leads to industry having to continue readjusting their pricing strategies to remain competitive through lower and lower priced bids, to the point where margins are razor thin and profitability suffers even more.
I was disappointed at remarks made by Dr. Steve Kelman on his FCW blog, as he seemed to ignore the fact that industry is facing the most difficult period in some time, and will continue to suffer. Barely mentioned is the vulnerability of small businesses, who will face fewer opportunities and even more risk through insourcing. This issue was barely addressed by both the panel and Dr. Kelman, a significant deficiency that I addressed to the panel via a question, but it did not get answered. It is comments like Dr. Kelman’s and the environment he describes that illustrates the work ahead.
The real factor to working in this environment productively is through increased and transparent communications between government and industry, and an understanding that both sides actually do have the same objective. That is, completing a mission on time, and within budget. However, that reality and the current environment for industry seem to be lost on government, and the tone at the NCMA conference exacerbated the “us versus them” attitude. Both sides need to understand the mission from each side’s perspective, and understand the impacts actions have on completing that mission. This is of vital interest to effective government management, and deteriorating relationships will make getting the job done that much more difficult for all parties in the challenging times that lay ahead.