Getting into Government Consulting

From Washington, D.C. to Olympia, Washington, there’s a rich potential for user experience (UX) consultants of all flavors to provide services to government. In this article I’ll share some thoughts directed toward you, the independent consultant or small firm that would like to work with government. I’ve tried to imagine what I’d tell you if we sat down for a drink together and you wanted to get into government consulting. Here it is.

On safari in deepest, darkest bureaucracy: Understanding government culture is crucial for ongoing engagement.

Developing a consulting relationship with government can be quite different from your previous experience consulting for business. To help you get started, I’ll outline some lessons I’ve learned in my work with government, in three key areas:

  • Appreciating the differences
  • Understanding the culture
  • Finding your niche

These strategies promote a customer-centric consulting practice—after all, your clients are your customers, and many of the same user-centric principles used in design apply to your business operations. That’s not too different than consulting anywhere else. But your niche in government culture is likely to be something other than what you’re used to in business.

Dorothy, we’re not in Silicon Valley anymore
Assuming that government works just like business will cost you the contract. Appreciating the differences allows you to target your efforts effectively.

For consultants engaging government, focusing on the different levels of jurisdiction is a critical first step in targeting your potential clients. Do you want to work with local, state or federal government? While the federal government makes headlines with “$700 million in new IT spending,” local and state governments are often more accessible and can provide valuable opportunities.

Deciding which segment to serve is largely a factor of access—state and local governments often prefer “hometown” consultants who are sensitive to local issues. Federal contract opportunities exist across the country, but may be too large for independents to tackle alone.

Political ROI trumps all
Once you’ve decided where to focus your attention, someone has to buy in to what you’re offering. In business, return on investment (ROI) drives those kinds of decisions, and the same goes for government. But ROI is so much more than money. In government (and often in business), financial ROI is secondary to political ROI. What do I mean by political ROI? Just that the cost-benefit ratio measures risks and rewards in political terms: how does any given action fit with the current elected policy? What are the ramifications for re-election? Negative media coverage? Public perception? How does it benefit the government, the department, a politician or senior executive? Does it make the job easier? What’s the worst-case scenario?

In the end, you may have a brilliant proposal with significant financial benefits that gets torpedoed because of politics. Selling your services requires you to position yourself as a political solution first—your services need to acknowledge the party line and make bureaucrats, politicians, internal teams and departments look good.

Beware the Ides of November
Even when you’ve covered your political bases, in an election year, all bets are off. This is true at any level of government, not just in presidential elections. A new administration can (and will) extinguish initiatives started by the ousted party. And even in the case of re-election, the focus isn’t on your precious UX proposal—it’s on the election aftermath. Budget announcements, major policy initiatives, departmental shuffles and other shifts in government will interrupt projects, too.

The bottom line is that you need to be patient during upheaval, and even more than being patient, you need to understand the culture of the departments you’re approaching.

On safari in deepest, darkest bureaucracy: Understanding government culture is crucial for ongoing engagement.

Learn the language
Like any foreign land, government has its own language. When traveling abroad abroad, knowing the local lingo—even a bit—goes a long way in building relationships. Without some advance effort on your part, departmental acronyms, official program names, building locations, internal traditions and initiatives can create a maze of jargon that keeps you from making the connections you need to sell your services.

Alongside this idiosyncratic vocabulary that defines your clients’ “national borders,” there is an additional set of buzzwords that can be aligned with UX goals and objectives. The language of eGovernment is full of things like “citizen-centric,” “G2C” (government to citizen), “C2G” (citizen to government), “service-centric,” etc. The actual selection “eGov” buzzwords will vary, but knowing what they mean can let you frame UX issues in terms that mesh well with existing eGovernment projects.

Know the people—top down and bottom up
While you’re learning the language, get to know the people. Consulting relationships are largely about people relationships—assuming you do good work, the difference between business success and failure is often who you know. In government there are two kinds of people who you’ll get to know: “top down” people are the people in charge. While this includes elected politicians, senior civil servants endure between elections and have more to do with strategic policy than many “backbench” politicians.

“Bottom up” people are people in the trenches actually doing the work—the internal web teams, the middle managers. If you can start talking right away with senior people, that’s great; but the grassroots civil servants will sink or float a project with their acceptance (or lack thereof). Use your personal network to make both kinds of contacts when you’re looking for government work. Even if the people you meet don’t have work for you immediately, you will learn more about government culture, establish longer-term relationships, and find leads on work in other departments.

Big picture, little picture
Even if you’re perfectly fluent in local jargon and know heaps of people, you still need to understand the political landscape. Two flavors of politics inform that landscape: the “big picture” of government initiatives and policy (particularly eGovernment or citizen-centric initiatives) and the “little picture” daily reality of how your client fits into those initiatives.

The “big picture” is usually public—take the time to get to know more than the sound bites from the 6 o’clock news by reading policy documents, studying up on current initiatives, and talking with your contacts to get the word on the street. Those same contacts can help you see the “little picture,” which is no less important. Understanding how your clients fit into the big picture—and where they’d like to fit into the big picture—goes a long way to in tailoring your offering.

Symbiosis is reality: Finding your niche means working with others
So you’ve learned the language, know the people and the landscape, understand the power of political ROI… now what?

While there may be small projects you can tackle on your own, many of the contracts considered in government are beyond the means of an independent or small consulting firm, particularly since the contracts are often package deals (there is the expectation that you will scope the project, create the spec and design, and then build it, maintain it and support it).

Think about working with existing development teams—this routes around the limitations of a smaller shop. This approach can take the form of supporting in-house efforts or working alongside a larger contractor (right now I’m working with an in-house government team; over the summer I did the UI design for a $1.2 million government extranet application that a large contractor is building). Since you can’t compete with larger firms, cooperate with them or change the field on which you compete by doing things they don’t do.

Go get ’em, Tiger ;)
That’s all there is to it. Well, not really. There’s more to consulting with government than this article can cover. But if you appreciate the differences, build connections and cultural understanding and pursue good partnerships, things are off to a good start. Drop me a line and let me know how it goes. Maybe we can go out for a drink.

For more information:
  • California eGovernment Plan

    http://www.ss.ca.gov/executive/bj_tech_plan.htm

    Most governments have a similar public policy document that you can find on their website. It’s required reading before any pitch.

  • Six Ways eGovernment Can Alienate Citizens

    http://infocentre.frontend.com/servlet/Infocentre?access=no&page=article&rows=5&id=265

    Sometimes good ideas get taken too far—in usability testing with over 40 participants, the life events model didn’t scale well to meet a wide variety of information needs.

  • Building Better eGovernment: Tools for Transformation

    http://www.nga.org/center/egovernment/

    Knowing current trends in eGovernment means that you’re being customer-centric in developing your own practice—after all we should practice what we preach.

Jess McMullin is active in the online UX community. He is on the CHI-WEB moderation team, is a User Experience Architect and serves on the info-arch.org advisory board. In his spare time he’s a family man. His personal site is www.interactionary.com

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