Government Affairs without Breaking the Bank – How to Use Congressional Intel in GovCon

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Government Contractors have a lot to juggle. They are tasked to find opportunities on beta.SAM, make sure they are up to date with cost accounting standards, and monitor the ever moving target of their socio-economic classification. Yet there is one more less-discussed avenue Government Contractors need to monitor to stay ahead of the curve publicly available Congressional documents

To discuss some best practices on deciphering these documents and how to use this information to better situate your company to win work with the Federal Government, The Pulse of GovCon sat down with Mike Hettinger, founder of Hettinger Strategy Group.

Mike Hettinger is a leading advocate for technology interests in Washington, DC, providing clients with government relations, federal marketing and public affairs consulting. Mr. Hettinger is a former Congressional Chief of Staff and House Government Management Subcommittee Staff Director, whose firm represents a virtual who’s who of technology companies doing business with the federal government, including many of Silicon Valley’s most innovative companies. Furthermore, Hettinger spent five (5) years with Grant Thornton’s Global Public Sector Practice leading federal market development.  

Question 1. Why is it important for Government Contractors to keep up with happenings on the Hill?

Understanding what Congress is working on, being able to help shape that thinking, and staying ahead of the curve is critical to success in today’s federal market. The more engaged you are, the more you know, and the more you know, the more effective you can be.

Policy, particularly legislation is often what sets market conditions for government contractors for years to come. Think about Federal Information Security Management Act (FIMSA), Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) and the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act these are all ideas that began in Congress, but have had the effect of driving what’s important to federal agencies for (in some cases) decades. What was included in FISMA has driven federal cyber policy since it was enacted in 2002.  More recently, the MGT Act really set the stage for a mindset shift toward modernization that has played out across government, as seen in Office of Management and Budget (OMB) initiatives like the President’s Management Agenda (PMA) and in General Services Administration (GSA) ideas like the Centers of Excellence (CoE)

Question 2. There are so many sources to help individuals keep a pulse on Hill movements. What top 3 resources do you recommend Government Contractors add to their “must reads” in order to monitor legislative and regulatory developments?

Different sources of information are important depending on what you’re trying to track. As an example, if we are bearing down on the end of the fiscal year and you want to know what’s really happening on Capitol Hill, waiting for the next morning’s story in the trade press might not be enough.  

Twitter, particularly those sources on the ground inside the Capitol like Jennifer Shutt from Roll Call and Nancy Ognanovich from Bloomberg are my Congressional budget and appropriations must-follows and the best way to track what’s going on in real time. 

On a day-to-day basis, it’s a challenge to keep up with everything going on on the Hill because there’s not one definitive source of information you need to monitor committee schedules, the House and Senate floor schedules, and what legislation has been introduced. Bloomberg Government does as thorough a job as anyone in tracking all things Capitol Hill related. 

Also most of the congressional committees have weekly emails that are sent out alerting you to what’s on the agenda, although some are better than others, and leadership will send out daily schedules for what’s happening on the floor.  

For my clients, I try to aggregate information from a lot of sources, adding my personal analysis to try and provide the most complete picture, because as I said, no single source has everything you need.    

Question 3. Memos, Publications, Federal Register Notices – oh my! What does all of this paperwork mean, and what documents do Government Contractors really need to pay attention to at the end of the day?

The short answer is you have to work through the noise to identify which proposed policies have the potential to impact you. I have a very diverse client base and not every policy that comes out of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), General Services Administration (GSA) or Capitol Hill impacts every one of my clients. 

I follow “big ticket” OMB memos (i.e. Cloud Smart, Federal Data Strategy), Executive Orders (EOs), playbooks (i.e. Application Rationalization Playbook released last year in conjunction with the Cloud Smart Strategy), or the more recently published RPA Playbook), federal agency strategy documents and key legislation like appropriations and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) more closely than I follow what’s in the Federal Register, although oftentimes there is some overlap. The ones that my clients tend to feel are most important are the ones that are open for public comment, so these are often prioritized.  Having the opportunity to shape these policies is a key part of effective government affairs engagement. 

Question 4. With communication channels starting to open wider in the Federal space, how do you suggest a Government Contractor should effectively respond to a Request for Public Comment? What formalities should they be aware of? Is it better to respond through a larger organization?

There are really two (2) ways to respond to requests for comments on the policy front, either directly or through a third-party like a trade association. The reality is that in most cases, government contractors leverage both.  

I always encourage my clients to respond to relevant policies when they have something worthwhile to share, such as a case study or best practice, or when they have concerns that need to be addressed before the policy is finalized. Responding to requests for comments also gives contractors marketing and branding opportunities as you can turn your responses into blogs and op-eds to help further your point of view. Being constructive is always helpful, but sometimes you need to be more critical, which is where third-parties come in.  

If a contractor has something negative to say and they are not comfortable saying it themselves, then it’s often best to ask one of the trade associations to add it to their comments.  This works especially well when your concerns are shared by a broader segment of the industry. We have seen a lot of this recently related to initiatives like Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) when a lot of contractors have serious concerns, but may not want to express those directly for fear of being singled out. The trades associations have tried to carry a lot of the water here, providing some distance for their members individually, but still trying to help shape policy in an advantageous way.

Question 5. Between now and 2023, what are the top policies and/or regulations that Government Contractors absolutely need to be keeping an eye on and why?

I got ahead of myself in answering the previous question, but CMMC, the defense department’s new cybersecurity requirement, is going to have a huge impact on those contractors who are doing business with the Department of Defense (DoD). CMMC is a whole-of-company requirement that’s going to be a condition of contract award for all DoD contracts by 2026.  The challenge for contractors is being rolled out contract-by-contract and we don’t know which contracts will require CMMC certification and when. My advice to my clients has been 1) move quickly to put a CMMC compliance plan in place and 2) talk to your contracting officers and key clients at DoD to try and get a sense of timing.  You should ask them straight up, “when are you planning to make CMMC a condition of contract award?” That should dictate the individual company’s compliance timeline because you don’t want to be caught without a CMMC certification when one of your key contracts requires it.

Beyond CMMC, there’s a continuing focus on supply chain security more generally, driven in part by concerns over Huawei and the Chinese government’s impact on technology policy. How and where you manufacture components is going to become more and more critical.  

I also think there will be a continued focus on federal automation, and along with this,  a focus on data driven decision-making.  These ideas come out of the Federal Data Strategy and Foundations in Evidence-Based Policymaking Legislation enacted last year and are critical to creating a more modern, connected, customer-focused government.

Question 6. For those organizations that can’t afford an internal Government Affairs and/or Relations team how do you suggest they weave good Government Relations habits into their business development process?

Policy and legislation is going to impact your business, whether you believe that or not.  Every company, large or small, should pay attention to what’s happening on Capitol Hill and with the policy making agencies of the federal government, primarily OMB and GSA in our world.  You don’t need to hire a K Street lobbying firm to get smarter on policy, but you do need to get advice and information from people who know what’s really happening and what that means for your business. 

I told someone the other day that the best clients I have are those that come to me for advice and recognize that this is my area of expertise, and not theirs.  I am not going to tell a client how to set up their human resources organization, but I will help them understand how the 21st Century IDEA legislation should impact their account focus at Office of Personnel Management (OPM) or GSA for example. My value is the diversity of my experience, having worked on Capitol Hill and in the government contracting industry and that helps me provide a perspective that most people in this town don’t have.   

If you feel like you want to get smarter on policy and think you can’t afford someone like me to help, you may be surprised as it isn’t cost prohibitive in most cases. If that’s not the route a company wants to go, a government contractor trade association is probably the best route.  These groups are like a government affairs “starter kit”. They’ll push out a lot of general information that will help a company better understand the market and how policy changes may impact them, but then it’s up to you to figure out how to incorporate that information into your business.    

If you have questions or inquiries, contact Mike Hettinger at mhettinger@hsg-dc.com

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