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Who’s Your Federal Customer?

In the federal market place, the buyer is not one person. The buyer is a constellation of people and committees who live and work among three rings of influence: 1) within the agency 2) within the respective industry; and 3) in Congress.

That’s right—every single federal dollar spent on contracts is first authorized and then appropriated by Congress.

Within the industry ring are prime and sub-prime vendors, suppliers, associations and service providers. To a degree, each has a voice about your offering that is being communicated into the buying environment. At a minimum, interests within the industry ring have influence. A person writing your purchase order from a prime vendor to you may appear to be your customer. He or she is at the very end of a lengthy process. There were several steps along the way where you might have made an indelible impact on an outcome favoring you.

The agency ring includes myriad individuals, committees and review panels, each of which has the ability to function as a gatekeeper, influencer or enabler to an actual buying decision. Appreciating that there are people above, below and alongside the program office that may budget for and fund your product is critical. To some degree, each of these people or committees can play a part in shaping your most preferred outcome.

The Congressional ring needs to be in your plan because appropriations bills are what funds government. Many individuals and committees have a hand in this process—and you have access to all of them. After the executive branch forwards a budget request via the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Congress has a chance to put its own stamp on the budget request.  Only after appropriations bills are reconciled between the House and Senate, and signed by the President, are funds allowed to flow back to the agencies and put on contract.

Every department of government has committees in the House and Senate that exercise oversight. Examining the flow of funds, making adjustments where they deem appropriate, is central to how Congress exercises its oversight. Knowing the who, when and how of those decisions can prove helpful to your business. The corollary should appear obvious: failure to engage in this part of the process can leave you out in the cold.

Many companies focus their effort only on the acquisition phase of the process, the period when Congress has approved funds and a contract appears more likely. The most egregious form of engagement at the tail end is waiting and watching for a public announcement of a contract opportunity—the RFP announced on FedBizOps (www.FBO.gov). The serious flaw in this method of prospecting is that the critical “must have” elements of the contract, the requirements, were assessed, debated and evaluated long before.

There are at least three fiscal budgets in motion simultaneously. They are at different places relative to one another in any given year. However, when companies get properly aligned to this perpetual process, they can clearly see near-, mid- and long-term opportunities. Understanding the three rings, the constellation of customers and the three-year timeline can strengthen your federal outcomes.

Participating along the entire spectrum of the federal funding and policy process does not require you to take up residence or even have a field office in Washington, DC. It does require that you invest some time in understanding the process. Despite the political energy that can dominate the news and headlines, the federal funding and policy process never stops.


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