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CIOs Sound Off: What Makes a Vendor a Good Partner?

The relationship between government agencies and the companies they work with is key to successful outcomes for IT projects, so we asked state and local CIOs what they look for in a partner.

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Adobe Stock/Cozine
The relationship between government agencies and private tech companies plays a pivotal role in a project’s outcome. So we asked CIOs: What makes a vendor a good partner?

Tom Lynch Cook County CIO
David Kidd/Government Technology
“Primarily, vendors should be reliable. Fundamentally, if a vendor delivers consistently on their obligations, then I’ll be far more likely to reuse them later because I’ll know that I can depend on them. Not every vendor can (or should) purport to be an expert in everything, both because it’s not practical and also because I’ll trust them more focusing within their sphere of expertise.” — Tom Lynch, CIO, Cook County, Ill.

Shane McDaniel, CIO, Seguin Texas
“Partners that play the long game with local governments do well, and if you stick your neck out for us and go the extra mile, it won’t go unnoticed. Know that we all talk behind the scenes. Texas is a big state, but local government is a small, tight-knit community. You do right by one of us, you do right by all. The same is true in reverse. It means something when a peer from another community vouches for a vendor. Relationships matter.” — Shane McDaniel, CIO, Seguin, Texas

Denise Reilly-Hughes head and shoulder shot. She's professionally dressed and wearing glasses with a playful cow-splotch pattern. She's looking at the camera and smiling.
Denise Reilly-Hughes
Government Technology/David Kidd
“I would say really understanding the outcomes. That for me is No. 1. We’re all driving to this end goal, this end outcome and the best partners are the ones at the table walking through the journey with you. And the other one would be really understanding how that particular state operates a little bit differently, where we’re all going to have the rules and the guidelines, and we’re all going to have different structures which we operate under. And it’s important in the vendor community to know that our pace may be a little bit different, but our goal is going to be the same.” — Denise Reilly-Hughes, CIO, Vermont

Former Washington CIO James Weaver
David Kidd/Government Technology
“Being strategic, knowing our strategic plan and coming in with solutions that align to what we’re trying to do from a strategic planning perspective. Nothing is more frustrating than a partner or a vendor calling up saying, ‘We would like to come in and spend an hour and hear what your problems are so we see what solutions we can bring for you.’ My problems are basically my strategic plan. ... Some of the best conversations are when a vendor comes in prepared to showcase, ‘We saw this, we have this, this permeates or goes across all these different areas of your strategic objectives and goals.’ Then we have a different discussion. And when I say being strategic, I’m looking for strategic partners, not transactional partners.” — James Weaver, CIO, North Carolina

San Diego CIO Jonathan Behnke
“A good vendor partner goes the extra mile to understand our business, challenges and priorities. It’s a bilateral relationship, and we need to be clear about our needs and priorities when working with our vendor partners to be successful. We publish our annual IT Strategic Plan on our website, and I’m always appreciative of the vendors that review it and engage us with knowledge of our budget, structure, operations and priorities.” — Jonathan Behnke, CIO, San Diego

Elise Ostiguy, Director of Enterprise Applications, Department of Technology Services, Arlington County, Va.
“Vendors should not underestimate the importance of their products or services succeeding when working with the government. Local jurisdictions may oftentimes be smaller clients with a small budget and requiring fewer resources compared to larger for-profit companies, yet they are still highly visible. A private company has the resources and ability to mitigate some of the effects and fallout of a vendor-related issue through robust public relations efforts and other means. Government, on the other hand, tends to be more transparent, more exposed and therefore likely to experience a more public failure of products or services.” — Elise Ostiguy, Director of Enterprise Applications, Department of Technology Services, Arlington County, Va.

Chris Seidt, Director of IT, Louisville, Ky.
“Vendors who want us to be a strategic partner and not just a customer tend to stand out because they want our help to develop features and products that could scale across other communities. Right now, we’re testing some 5G equipment that hasn’t even been assigned a part number yet by the company and it came to us straight from the lab. That only happened because of the ongoing relationship we have with their team. We’re learning on the fly with this device because it doesn’t have a manual yet, but the company is also learning about some use cases they hadn’t thought of for their product, and in the end, they’re going to give us a product that exceeds our expectations, and we’re going to give them new ideas on how to design their products so city governments can use them at scale for smart city applications, IoT connected devices or even network resilience at their public safety locations.” —
Chris Seidt, Director of Civic Innovation and Technology, Louisville, Ky.

Stephen Pereira, CIO, Calvert County, Md.
“There’s an old saying, ‘You get what you pay for,’ and I understand that. Some vendor products come with a real premium and cost more than their competitors because they’re responsive, trustworthy and reliable, so if we have to pay a premium to get those qualities, we’re willing to do so. But price isn’t our primary driver. Other factors like quality, reliability, security, consistency, customer support, flexibility and communication are of equal importance.” — Stephen Pereira, CIO, Calvert County, Md.

Baton Rouge IT Director Eric Romero
“Vendors need to understand that we don’t always know what the best solution is if we’re coming to you with a problem. Also, approaching with the understanding that we have shifting priorities in government, meaning your timeline, your quarters and your end-of-years are probably not going to be a factor to me. It’s strictly what capacity that I or my team have to put the project in place. It’s extremely dynamic right now on the public-sector side as far as the projects that we can undertake and the priorities of those projects.” — Eric Romero, Director of Information Services, Baton Rouge, La.

Arkansas CTO Jonathan Askins
Government Technology/David Kidd
“A good partner will evaluate before they rush in. They’ll evaluate the things that are important to us. They may read a newspaper article, they may hear me talk, they may see something, they’ll evaluate what’s important. And they’ll come in and say, ‘Hey, Jonathan, I know you’re having this problem here. I’ve got a solution, can we talk about it?’ ... To me, that’s a good partner, because they’ve already thought about my side. They thought about it from an ROI perspective, what do I get out of it? And they’re not just trying to fit a round screw into a square hole, or vice versa. ... I think a good partner understands what my needs are and then figures out where they can meet those needs. And they may not meet those needs for several months, they may not be able to answer anything. But when they do, when they come to me, then they’re like, ‘Hey, I’ve really got something this time.’ ... And I like partners who look at that and think about the right thing. And they understand the timing and they know when it’s right and they know when it’s wrong.” — Jonathan Askins, CTO, Arkansas

Reporting from Noelle Knell and Lauren Kinkade contributed to this story, which originally appeared in the January/February 2024 issue of Government Technology magazine. Click here to view the full digital edition online.
Ashley Silver is a staff writer for Government Technology. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Montevallo and a graduate degree in public relations from Kent State University. Silver is also a published author with a wide range of experience in editing, communications and public relations.