Companies selling to the government, and government managers who need to know about the latest technologies available from industry, are caught in a maze. But none of the paths leads us to one another. I’m talking about the communications channels so commonly used to exchange ideas and learn from one another.

Technology manufacturers have three main communications modes to support their sales efforts: business development or sales, external marketing activities, and whatever content, e.g., white papers, the company creates.

I would like to concentrate on those person-to-person activities that mainly fall under business development: conferences, seminars, vendor presentations, training events, trade shows, contractor days, etc.

That’s because these same face-to-face channels of communication are equally important to the government for gaining insight into technology market trends, and for learning about what colleagues at other agencies are doing.

But it has become decidedly more difficult lately, and not necessarily because either side wants it that way. Fallout from revelations about alleged overspending at conferences staged by the government itself has caused a considerable degree of skittishness about face-to-face communications and the forums in which they occur.

Plus, the fiscal situation has travel budgets in the crosshairs. Not-so-subtle pressure makes federal managers worry about trips even to widely offered industry events. One restriction filtering down from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) rules out any place with the word “resort” in the title, even if it’s a budget hotel or the rates conform to government per diems.

We’ve seen some federal experts become highly reluctant to speak at sponsored events even when most of the attendees are government and it’s offered for free. Ditto for would-be attendees. At events where everyone has paid their own way, complimentary beer and wine socials are verboten if they are sponsored by industry.

This reluctance has spread even to training conferences at which attendees may receive continuing education credits.

The irony here is that this chilling of communications occurred after OMB’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy launched its “mythbusters” campaign, the purpose of which was to increase the amount of pre-solicitation communications. The word “myth” is apt, because industry-government two-way communication has always been legal and even encouraged by the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) and OMB informal policy.

I think it’s time to re-state the fact that person-to-person communications remain necessary and desirable to support the goal of ensuring that government obtains the right solutions to the challenges it faces. What to do?

For government:

  • By all means, be selective with attendance, but don’t shrink back from legitimate communications at ethical and carefully planned forums.
  • Don’t be shy about expressing concerns and any restrictions you have to live under, but don’t use restrictions to hide or avoid what can be valuable opportunities to gain knowledge first-hand.
  • Understand that in-person forums are a great way to compare technologies and to network with your own peers to see how they are solving problems.
  • Push vendors for specifics, otherwise you won’t know what you can ask for in your requirements.

For industry:

  • Respect the issues facing government employees now, and make sure the events you sponsor or hold meet all of the ethical and regulatory requirements. If you don’t know the rules, outsource the event to someone who does.
  • Get in synch with your government customers. Attend their industry days and ask the people tasked with reaching out to industry for help to get to the right people with your solutions.
  • Encourage government prospects to attend above-board events reminding yourself these are places to exchange information, relate case histories, and avoid any hard sell.
  • Focus on problems and solutions. Educate your customer so they will know the art of the possible when it comes time for them to draft their requirements.

Allan Rubin is Vice President of Marketing for immixGroup, Inc., which helps technology companies do business with the government.