Non-traditional contractors grow up

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The Digital Services Coalition, a trade association representing non-traditional IT contractors, is out with a new strategic plan.

Non-traditional IT contractors, whom I have blogged about a number of times over the years, appeared in significant numbers in the federal space in the wake of the debacle over the launch of the website in 2013. With offbeat names such as Ad Hoc, Fearless and Oddball, they represent a youthful challenge to the more staid and middle-aged world (and I speak as someone well past middle age) of government IT contracting. 

In 2019  they entered the Washington mainstream by establishing their very own trade association called the Digital Services Coalition (DSC), concentrating on promoting practices especially common among commercial IT firms, such as user-centered design and agile, rather than taking on govtech in general.(They grew out of an earlier Agile Contracting Community of Practice.) Their original 16 member firms have now grown to 28, including two or three that have gotten big enough to be classified as large businesses in the contracting system.  

Now they have really entered the mainstream by publishing a strategic plan, something that every self-respecting group around government wants to have. I just read it, and it is interesting. (They do continue to display their non-conventional roots by using a slack channel to communicate.)

The main thing I want to emphasize about their strategic plan is that it is indeed somewhat unconventional. In the plan, they discuss three "core values." The first is what they call "people over profits." This communicates a bit of an anti-business feel perhaps unexpected for an organization of businesses—more like Bernie Sanders than like the Leidos CEO Roger Krone. This is not a core value one would see in the traditional govcon world.

A second core value is what they call "users over stakeholders." By this, they seek to distinguish themselves from traditional contractors who, like most large companies, emphasize the many stakeholders they serve (shareholders and employees along with customers). They want to say instead that they are focused specifically on government customers. 

The third core value they call "community over credit," which relates more to how they see relationships among member firms in their organization—where they put relatively more emphasis on their cooperation with each other to promote the importance of the digital space as a whole compared to the status of individual member companies.

The strategic plan is also interesting because it states a number of demands they plan to place on members, itself unusual for an association (which would normally be more concerned with attracting new members than excluding some who wanted to join).

"We plan to establish and enforce community standards which will hold members to consistently practicing and exemplifying the values of the DSC. This will ensure the community and culture of the DSC remains true to the mission and vision," the plan states. Similarly, they pledge to "establish, incentivize, and enforce member time/volunteer requirements for active engagement in initiatives."

I spoke with Traci Walker, the DSC's director, about the DSC. Walker went to work as a contract specialist at the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service right after graduating from college in 2000, working for GSA legend Casey Coleman and negotiating IT maintenance contracts and other buys. After that she worked at OMB doing procurement for the White House, and then for the U.S. Digital Service when USDS head Mikey Dickerson was setting up a procurement capability after the fiasco. She landed at DSC when her time at USDS was up, and she was looking for a new job.

I asked Walker about the demands DSC seeks to place on members. She said these were for real, but conceded DSC doesn't yet know how to operationalize them—giving them meat is a work in process. She noted that an association of open source companies had established as a condition for membership that the members make their software publicly available, so there is precedent in this space for an association putting demands on members.

Traci Walker and the DSC will never dominate the world of government contracting. But I for one am happy they are a real part of this community.

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