The tough part about working with local government isn’t necessarily the work itself. A lot of the trouble actually comes from getting the opportunity to do the work. Because of the layers involved in working with local government, a lot of providers don’t specialize in it or may simply avoid it all together. There’s red tape, plenty of bureaucracy, and a slew of various requirements like background checks and other security necessities. Still, there can be some real opportunities when working with the government.
Once you’re in and you’ve done work with government entities, it’s easy to gain a good reputation with quality work, which can lead to references and more accounts. Plus, government entities are known for sticking with providers for long terms, which makes the relationships quite valuable.
The question you might have is: where does one get started when it comes to providing IT to local government? We asked Guy Baroan, founder and president of MSP firm Baroan Technologies, a little about his experience and approach to working with clients in the government. Right now, he works with around ten government offices that range from police departments to call centers and his government business only continues to grow.
STC: How did your business get started with government?
Guy: We were introduced to a call center and we started working with them because they were looking for a change from their current provider and we happened to have a marketing campaign that brought us in front of them. We won the opportunity and did a great job—they knew we were the right fit and that we could do the job we promised them. The client was so happy with our services that he started telling everybody he knew that they should work with us and eventually we got some other towns to work with.
And actually, some towns are leery of doing that—if they have a relationship with someone, they tend to stick to it. For us, one major opportunity came from a town whose service provider was in another state and couldn’t provide service fast enough. Well, there we were in a town over. They gave us a shot, and we went down and spoke to them about what they need, they explained how they work, and gave us a little work here and there and we were able to prove ourselves and they gave us a little bit more work. Little by little, we built trust and proved that we were looking out for them. At that point they started listening to more and more of the recommendations that we made and now we have what we believe is a great relationship that fits their budgets and requirements.
STC: What are some of the biggest challenges involved in working with the government?
Guy: The biggest challenge we had was this: some towns do a great job keeping things up to date and others don’t. They don’t always know all the things that need to be updated or how quickly they can do it. This is difficult because if something isn’t budgeted beforehand it has to go out to bid—there’s a process. It’s not like a business where money could be allocated if needed. A town has a certain amount they could spend in a given year and they use state contracts for equipment they need, but it has to be budgeted and approved. If they want to go above what the allowable yearly expenditure is, they have to start getting bids. The challenge is that you’re working with a client and even if you’re doing a great job, they don’t usually want to exceed the costs they have and they may not want to go out to bid at all. If they do, they have to go with the lowest bidder, which can mean losing the opportunity.
STC: Is it profitable to work in government?
Guy: We’re still fairly new in comparison to other companies, but we see it as a big opportunity because it lets us bring on more accounts. The benefit is that they often can’t do all of the work up front as a business would. Let’s say they want a full refresh of all their technology. A business might be able to do it, but a town has to plan for that. Because of the budgeting and approval process, they may or may not be able to do it all in a year. The benefit is that you potentially have lots of long-term projects that are coming up consistently. The downside is that you’re not going to have those big one-off projects unless there are situations where a project goes out to bid and you’re the lowest bidder.
STC: What do they look for in a provider? Does a bid open to anybody?
Guy: You have to meet certain criteria for the government. You have to be a legitimate business—you can’t have anything against you as a business, you can’t have filed for bankruptcy, you need to be a real up-and-up company. You also have to go through some training, particularly if you’re talking about law enforcement, and you have to be able to sign FBI background checks for anybody that’s going to be working on the account or anybody in the company who might be looking at information on the network. So from a security perspective, they need to make sure nobody has a criminal history.
STC: How do you know which requirements they have?
Guy: They usually provide this stuff for us. [note: requirements vary based on locality, township, and so forth, but there are some requirements for federal governments listed on this site.]
STC: What sort of value do you bring to them?
Guy: Government has compliance needs and they have certain security criteria they have to meet. So they are constantly under the pressure of meeting those standards. The value we bring comes from our ability to meet standards. For instance, we’re HIPAA compliant and because we have clients in the financial sector, we’re aware of the security that’s needed for various regulations—these requirements aren’t that different with the government. If you’re good with security in one sector, you’ll probably be a good fit in other towns and municipalities in other places.
STC: So you’re saying that being familiar with other compliance standards can empower you to work with the government?
Guy: The thing about HIPAA and those types of requirements is they’re essentially just really straightforward, very good security practices. They involve knowing who logged in, knowing where the backup is, knowing that everything is working, knowing you have a disaster recovery plan, being able to lock down ports, knowing where mobile data is, having encrypted email. A lot of the skills are transferrable to other industries, whether it’s government or businesses. If you have these skills, you’ve already taken huge steps toward working with other industries.
Look at what Microsoft has done. They’re one of the few companies to meet all compliance standards with Office 365. They said, “You know what? We’re going to be HIPAA compliant,” but now it’s not that much more to be compliant for government or for finance. They just keep adding and adding and get all of their compliance requirements out of the way.
STC: Would you recommend working in government to other providers?
Guy: It’s an opportunity. If you can get in and do a good job, they’ll be very loyal to you. It’s very similar to a business. If you’re legitimately trying to help people out, you’ll be able to get in and once you’re there, you’ll unlock all sorts of opportunities. Lots of towns know other towns, once you’re in with one you’ll start to get referrals because they’ll be happy with the service.
STC: So really, the big difference between government and business is that you need to be patient with their budgets?
Guy: That’s a good summary, and the other part is you’ve got to be willing to learn how the government works. It can be frustrating and there’s a lot of published information. When you look at it all, it can seem overwhelming. But if you’re willing to take your time and learn, these government opportunities can be very long term.
Photo credit: Ben Grey via Flickr