Wartime or not, government contracting a complex mission

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Businesses facing a deteriorating general economy may see the government market as their only growth opportunity. Who can blame them? Even those that have never bid on a government contract are probably wondering if their goods or services might appeal to military buyers as part of the war on terrorism, or to federal, state or local buyers working with a portion of the governments $40 billion disaster relief allocation.

If only it were that easy. Despite decades of slow reform, experts familiar with government procurement remind the uninitiated that this marketplace is labyrinthine.

"The myth is that what you do in the commercial or private sector is easily transferable to the government arena," said Fern Krauss, a partner with ESTN Communications Group L.L.C., Silver Spring, Md.

Krauss noted that the government, and in particular the military, buys things via carefully constructed contracts, such as agency-specific Blanket Purchase Agreements or General Services Administration schedules. In fact, ESTNs sister company Boscobel Marketing has a GSA schedule. It can sell marketing services to the whole government as part of its GSA schedule, which took a full nine months to win.

Where should a business start?

Krauss and others say the first step is to decide on the end customer, whether an individual government agency, the GSA or a contractor already working with the government. In many cases, they say, partnering with an existing government supplier may be the best chance for a vendor unfamilar with the process. Either way, research is essential. Use the Web to check the GSA and agency Web sites. In addition, consider hiring a brokera firm that mediates between the government and private sector companiescontacting The Small Business Administration or calling your state and federal representatives.

Still, there is a common belief that securing government contracts, especially military contracts, is a closed game, a good-old-boy network largely closed to outsiders.

Earlier this month, for instance, the Department of Defense issued a letter to defense contractors, reminding them to use "discretion" in their public statementspresumably also including their marketing campaignsin order to safeguard information about "military activities." Our story on the Defense Department letter appears on Page 1 in this issue.

While preventing the inadvertent release of military information is a good thing, I worry the Defense Departments missive may be unnecessarily constraining suppliers eager to get their story in front of procurement officers at all levels of government. Numerous businesses have products or services that will be useful to the military or "homeland defense" planners. They absolutely must be free to communicate these benefits through brand and direct marketing.

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