In this interview with Dan Levenson, President, Board Member and Co-Founder of the Digital Services Coalition and Chief Strategy Officer with Agile Six, FedHealthIT’s President, Susan Sharer, taps into Dan’s experience as a former contracting professional to dig into his insights on what can be done better, how industry engages with Government and his recommendations for moving forward. They also discuss opportunities within the Coalition.
Insights Through Experience
Through my experience working at CMS, I have come to understand the challenges faced by Contracting Officers working within a risk averse system, who are trained to find safety in following the rules rather than building relationships. These incentives lead to a misalignment of what successful contracting looks like.
There are a lot of great, passionate people who get into procurement, but their purpose is often lost over time as they are burdened by success being defined by things like protests or budget spending, rather than delivering meaningful value to taxpayers and users.
To avoid these pitfalls, Contracting Officers need to be empowered to ask the right questions and to conduct market research – in other words, to serve as a business advisor, where they can showcase their expertise and background. This is the role most contracting professionals want, and how they could best support Government, but the ability to collaborate and communicate within the Federal ecosystem is encumbered by systemic challenges.
Recommendations for Industry to Engage
Understanding that the person on the other side of the table has passion and purpose for their mission, the challenge to industry is to take a human-centered approach to business development. Industry has to set aside the traditional sales pitch mentality to ensure they are grounding every interaction with purpose, articulating the why, and nurturing human connections.
Passionate people want to talk with people who share that passion and purpose. I truly believe there has to be a human relationship first – knowing the person you are speaking with, perhaps what motivates them away from the office, to truly understand what motivates them in the office. Then, a message focused on shared purpose can be delivered with transparency, honesty and trust. These are the things we build real relationships on outside the workplace, and contracting interactions require no less.
There are thousands of vendors and business development professionals looking to speak with Government at any given time, so it’s important to understand the fine line between having solid, smart ideas to help develop your relationships, and damaging a relationship by coming off as opportunistic. Run your ideas through your colleagues first to ensure they are rock solid. Be honest about how something is going to come off. If you don’t have a good answer to what makes you different in a specific case, think twice before requesting someone’s valuable time. Be mindful of how you differentiate yourself from those just seeing potential dollars. And remember, real relationships go beyond any one contract.
At Agile Six, we are most proud of our decisions to always protect the integrity of what we care about. We’ve turned down big contracts because we didn’t believe in the work, or because they would have forced us to turn into the sort of giant, impersonal company we never want to be. We like to think Government notices those decisions.
Engagement During COVID-19
Industry engagement is hard right now, but I suspect the people who have prioritized relationships are having an easier time. Those existing relationships make the other side more willing to take that call from home and more willing to set up that video meeting. There is a lot of currency in establishing meaningful and ongoing relationships. In the current environment, people who have made that investment are able to see its value.
Digital Services Coalition
The Coalition started as an organic group of like-minded companies. While we will always be each other’s fiercest competition, we realized we could either take a zero-sum mentality and prioritize profit first, or band together at a higher level to help move the civic tech market forward. Ultimately, the latter is better, not only for taxpayers and users, but also for business.
We are currently a fully volunteer organization and are looking to grow our membership as we mature. To ensure we are growing in a way that aligns with our vision, mission and manifesto, every member can sponsor one new member a year. We think this growth strategy is both inclusive and intentional. We’re exploring ways for more external outreach and collaboration, and more opportunities to bring together like-minded folks who share our passion for building a better Digital Government.
About Dan Levenson
Dan Levenson is the Chief Strategy Officer with Agile Six, responsible for company growth, marketing and strategic direction. He is also President, Board Member and Co-Founder of the Digital Services Coalition, a 501(c)6 non-profit focused on collaborative transformation of Government Digital Services. Dan’s perspective is supported by 10 years of Digital Service acquisition experience, and time spent previously serving as the Digital Service Contracting Advisor and Contracting Officer at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). He also served as the lead procurement architect for the successful CMS ADELE Agile BPA to support the development of the Quality Payment Program at CMS. Dan was named to the 2017, 2018 and 2020 FedHealthIT100 as one of the most influential individuals in driving change and advancement in the Federal Health IT Market.