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CIOs and Vendors: A Complex Relationship (Opinion)

When a vendor calls, do you talk or run for cover?

by / January 13, 2010
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In addition to being a senior fellow for the centers for Digital Government and Education (the research division of e.Republic Inc., which also publishes Public CIO), a columnist for this magazine, and a former public CIO, I'm occasionally a vendor to the public sector.

It's allowed me to see both sides of the relationship between public-sector IT leaders and the vendors that (should) serve them. Over the years, my feelings toward IT vendors have varied from gratitude to outright disgust. I also observe this range of feelings when discussing vendor relations with various IT leaders.

I believe vendors are a valuable source of information, inspiration, contacts and networking, in addition to providing government with the products and services necessary to deploy, maintain and use technology to improve service delivery. So the question is: How do IT leaders manage vendor relationships to get what they need, avoid problems and scandals, and obtain maximum value for their investments of taxpayer funds?

I'm not talking about procurement reform. I'm talking about the good, bad and ugly sides of working with vendors.

First, the good. Recently I served on a conference panel with New York CIO Melodie Mayberry-Stewart, and was amazed when she gave out her direct phone line to a packed house of vendors! She stressed that New York wants to have good relationships with vendors, and that it's part of her office's job to help vendors figure out how to work with them. This openness and willingness to engage vendors is the foundation for a mutually beneficial relationship.

Next, the bad. I won't call any names, but we all know IT leaders who work hard to avoid vendors. They try their best to hide their contact information, how much they're spending on IT, their organization's IT priorities and pain points, and generally have no process for establishing and maintaining relationships with vendors. They're inaccessible and when you find them, they won't take or return your calls.

One has to wonder if they really think they don't need what vendors offer, especially before the contract is signed. I know a few who harbor this false belief. It's no wonder when they struggle to get viable proposals and achieve success once a contract is signed.

Finally, the ugly. You know of whom I speak -- the IT leaders who avoid and badmouth vendors. I'm not against warning others about poor performing vendors -- I've done it. I'm talking about personal attacks and those who only tell half the story. Multiple times, I've seen these same folks end up in trouble for inappropriate or even illegal procurement activities. Imagine that.

Somewhere between all and nothing is the right approach for developing mutually beneficial and legal vendor relationships.

In small organizations, it may be hard to get much attention. In addition to ensuring that you're accessible and have a process for attracting and managing vendors, it's important to understand which vendors want to work with organizations your size and pursue them. You might not attract the so-called Tier 1 vendors, but there are many reputable vendors exist that can help smaller jurisdictions.

Although being with a large organization often equates to more money and vendor attention, problems come with this situation too. IT leaders in large organizations often get so many vendor calls that they wouldn't have time to do anything else if they tried responding to even some of them.

My point is vendors are valuable, so take advantage of what they have to offer. Make yourself, staff and information accessible.

I'd be remiss if I closed without a few words of wisdom to IT vendors. You don't always have to talk to the top dog, especially in large organizations. They can't possibly know or handle everything directly. Respect IT leaders' limitations about disclosure, finances, time and gifts. Don't hound or tempt them or go over their heads. Finally underpromise and overdeliver -- it works every time. If both sides make an effort, we can truly be partners in success.


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Liza Lowery Massey
Liza Lowery Massey served as a public-sector IT executive for nearly 20 years, including as CIO of Los Angeles. She then established the CIO Collaborative to provide public-sector research, benchmarking and consulting services. She also teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas
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