A small business guide to working with government
On Oct. 17, the Government Technology Exhibition and Conference (GTEC) honoured some of the best innovations in government technology at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. Our client, the City of Calgary, was runner-up in the Transforming the Business of Government category for the iPhone application we developed for the city’s 2010 municipal election.
What was notable about the event was the number of honourees who were involved in mobile projects. The City of Mississauga won a gold medal for its MiWay mobile website for public transportation and the Ontario government’s OSAP group was also an honoree for its mobile application.
This is a good sign for Purple Forge. As a provider of mobile apps, we are glad to see the increasing interest in the development of mobile applications for constituent communications and delivery of services to the public. Mobile apps also represent the next generation of “green” digital solutions, which will help the government to reduce mail and print budgets over the next 10 years.
The wheels turn slow, but they do turn consistently
But our company likely would have died waiting to see this day come if we had not had other sources of revenue. As mentioned in my first blog, new companies need to export or die. This is particularly true in the public sector, considering that the sales cycle for Canadian governments is at least 18 months. We started soliciting government departments at all levels in 2009, but it wasn’t until late 2010 that we saw our first agreements signed, and not until mid-2011 before we started to unlock real revenue potential. Here are some of the key tips I can share on being a small company doing business with governments in Canada.
Government managers are busy, be prepared to wait
It’s a widely held belief that the people who work in government are lazy. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Senior managers in government work as hard as people in the private sector, and also have to deal with the volatility of the political infrastructure that oversees them. Your project may be of significant interest to the manager you are working with, but the minister may have other work in store for your manager. Be prepared to wait at least a fiscal budget cycle to get your project into the work rotation, and even longer if there is an election in the works. Changes in power and cabinet shuffles can play havoc with the prioritization of work in government.
Government managers are people too – treat them like real customers
Relationships are as important in the public sector as they are in the private sector. Government is not a monolithic Borg-like entity; it is filled with managers looking to serve the public in the best way possible. Even though you can’t take them out for a meal as you would a private sector customer, there are plenty of professional ways to engage and understand their needs.
One of our key lessons learned is that they make acquisition decisions based on “best value” and not always lowest cost, so it is important that you spend time and explain the advantages of your offer to them. The discussion will not begin and end on price. “Best value” has many forms of expression, and government managers do understand that what might be lowest cost now might not work for them in the long term.
Procurement vehicles are confusing, help managers figure out how they can buy your product
Be prepared to spend some effort on finding out the best way for your government customer to purchase your product. Sole sourcing, whereby they pay you as a specialist without a competitive bid process, is popular, but can be limiting as you might be sacrificing profitability to meet their sole-source purchasing limit. Sole-source bids can be extended, but this may create more headaches for your customer as they navigate their internal procurement processes and policies.
Competitive bidding processes also pose issues. If the government manager picks the wrong procurement vehicle for the project, they may be asking you to bid on a professional services agreement, when they really need to be asking vendors to bid on a goods and materials contract. This can lead to lots of wasted time for government managers in evaluating spurious bids or non-bids. Educating the customer on how they can best develop a request for proposal to acquire your product or service is as important as understanding their requirements for the project.
Government is not a good guinea pig – have your act together
If you are piloting something new with the government, you are in for trouble. You should have the kinks worked out of your product before serving it to them. Given managers’ busy schedules, unforeseen delays or quality issues can derail a project and bring embarrassment to the political hierarchy. A demonstrated track record will go a long way to helping you start a conversation with a government manager on procurement.
Our experience with the government has been fruitful, with occasional delays and procurement frustrations that have in general been worked out because of the relationships we have developed. We feel we have developed a solid portfolio of work that will serve as our calling card into other departments. As government does begin to come around (those wheels turn slowly) to deploying more mobile apps, we are extremely well positioned to serve the government and the public with a strong, battletested service offering.
John Craig is the VP of Sales and Marketing for Purple Forge.