Rory Schulz chairs an ACT-IAC (American Council for Technology - Industry Advisory Council) program. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

A Fairfax-based collaborative effort to improve relations between the government and industry plans to graduate its latest class this week, bringing the total number of alumni to more than 500 since the effort began in 1997.

“Partners” is an initiative of the nonprofit private-public partnership American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council, better known as ACT-IAC. The group is chaired by both a government representative and an industry official — this year, Darren Ash, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s chief information officer, for the government side (ACT) and Dale Luddeke chief growth officer for the contracting firm TASC, for the industry side (IAC).

The group’s efforts could become all the more important in tough budget times, as government agencies scrutinize costs and contractors face more government constraints.

Heidi Myers, branch director at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and a member of the class graduating this week, said there is a gap between the government and industry, “especially if you’ve been a government employee your entire career” or vice versa.

“Definitely,” Myers said. The program is about “bridging that gap and trying to understand better the other side.”

Companies and government agencies sponsor the employees they want to attend the program; government agencies pay about $4,300 for their attendees, while private companies pay about $4,800 for theirs. The tuition covers speaker costs, supplies, meals and lodging at off-site events.

The program is a no-sales zone, meaning industry attendees aren’t allowed to pitch their services to their government counterparts.

In 2008, Rory D. Schultz, who now heads the initiative for ACT-IAC, was unenthusiastic about the prospect of attending the nine-month Partners program.

Schultz, who at the time worked for the Treasury Department but has since moved to the Agriculture Department, was worried about the time commitment and what he’d get out of it.

But “I completely drank the Kool-Aid,” he said of the program. “I had such a good experience.”

Schultz said he particularly gained an appreciation of how industry prepares its proposals for government contracts — which still helps him.

“Now I know why they ask questions about certain types of things during the proposal process,” he said, which can be useful in figuring out, for instance, whether a deadline should be extended.

Schultz keeps in touch with his classmates, which he said is a key part of the initiative.

Allen Ashbey, director of business development at Arlington-based Sapient Government Services, is graduating in this year’s class. He said he benefited from the opportunity to speak candidly with industry and government counterparts.

“We definitely are put in positions throughout the program itself to collaborate on ideas ... and on more than a few occasions collectively we all helped each other,” he said. “I’ve built long-term relationships.”