What if I told you that politics are at play in the government? Don’t laugh - I know that’s obvious. But did you also realize that politics can impact procurement opportunities, too?
If you’ve been left baffled by a recent procurement issue or wondering why a bid you were sure you’d win never went through, politics could be the culprit. Here’s what you need to know, and what you can do, about this underlying layer of influence.
You may have an opinion on the government procurement process (and I’m guessing if you are reading this blog, you do). I think we can all agree that the process is pretty straightforward – solicitation, pre-bid conference, due date, negotiation, award. No one has to worry about a secret proposal being submitted after the due date or negotiations with an undisclosed supplier who never responded.
But even so, procurement is not immune from confusing developments. Like when suppliers unexpectedly receive notice that the RFP has been cancelled with no explanation. Or, it’s a well-known fact that a mission critical system could fail at any point, putting the state’s data at risk, but an agency will not move forward with planning a procurement. With such a black-and-white process and visible need, why would an agency suddenly cancel a bid or not even entertain a procurement conversation?
It could be politics.
This is the gray area where decisions are made, not based on the merits of the proposed solutions or the need for a new direction. There could be fear around legislative pressure or budget tension about asking for more funding to move forward. Perhaps there is a supplier who wishes to exercise its political connections if a procurement continues on its present path. Maybe the procurement was poorly written and would lead to negative press, so the powers that be decided to cancel it. Or, it could be the result of an inner agency debate with factions pressing for different outcomes.
Whatever the reason, this third dimension in any government procurement is always present.
I wish there were a blueprint to share – a checklist of personalities to cater to, or relationships to forge, that applied to all procurement opportunities. But there isn’t. This knowledge comes from knowing the account, listening to feedback and asking good questions. It also helps to have a lobbyist whose job is to stay close to these developments and help you navigate the minefield.
However, here are a few considerations to keep in mind when developing your sales strategy.
Don’t Oversimplify the Budget Process. If you are already selling to the government, then you know that agency funding is typically hard to come by, especially if the agency has to endure federal regulations to draw down funds. And, while we can talk for hours on the competing agency budget priorities or the governor’s influence, there are key relationships underlying this public process. There are always three people in a budget conversation – the agency, the governor’s budget director and the legislative budget director. And, with all relationships, they are multidimensional. Trust must be earned. Memories cloud judgment. Taxpayer dollars are at stake. Thinking that a project will get funding just because it is a good idea for the state is naïve, given the different motivations and experience that factor into the decision.
Don’t Underestimate the Impact of the Legislature. Legislators represent their district. Districts are made up of businesses, associations and individual constituents. These folks may have opinions on how an agency should operate. Perhaps an association feels disenfranchised from competing on an agency contract. Maybe there is a business that has a large presence that wants to see a program change to protect its footprint. Regardless, legislators listen and some may press for a new policy that indirectly (or directly) creates a procurement opportunity. Understanding the dynamic between an agency and the legislature can quickly become a critical need if you have a new opportunity to win a contract, or if your contract may be in jeopardy.
Don’t Lose Track of Project Approvals. It’s important to remember that some projects may require additional approvals before a project kick-off. In terms of technology products and services, the most obvious one is the state’s Project Investment Justification process. Outlined in state law, and recently updated in regulations, projects valued at over $1 million must receive approval from the state IT Authorization Committee. With 13 government and private sector members, suppliers must remember that members have opinions and may have been lobbied by your competitors, legislators may have a “bone to pick” with an agency and the other items on the agenda may quickly set a hostile tone for the entire meeting.
Don’t Rely on One Agency Official. Agency directors are appointed by the governor. There is nothing more political than a political appointment. With no control over the tenure of an agency director, it’s important to build a network of agency stakeholders who see the value in your product or service that survives any change in administration. And, because governors are elected for four-year terms (max of two terms), you can pretty much guarantee sometime in your multi-year public sector sales cycle that agency leadership will turn over.
Don’t be fooled if someone tells you they can help you sell a product or service by making some introductions to government officials. Even if you get the introductions and eventually win a contract, the deal isn’t done. While it’s hard to predict when politics will become an issue, suppliers must be cognizant of the personalities and pressures surrounding a procurement.