The federal government is the primary customer of a substantial portion of our region’s technology businesses. So it bears watching what it does. Industry participants tell me that the coming year looks promising, but even so, there are reasons for concern.
Bobbie Kilberg, president and chief executive of the local trade group, the Northern Virginia Technology Council, and someone with her finger on the pulse of our region’s technology economy, is optimistic that 2018 will be a good year for the government contracting industry. She points to the Trump administration’s attention to IT modernization and innovation, focusing on what she describes as the “plumbing of administration.”
This modernization trend dovetails closely with areas where our local businesses have proven technology expertise. John Wood, CEO of Telos, a company that focuses on data security and integrity, said the federal government’s rapid adoption of cloud-based software should play to a regional strength. Michael Isman, managing director of Deloitte Consulting, said there will likely be opportunities in digital reality, blockchain data storage, and automation.
Anita Antenucci, senior managing director at the law firm Houlihan Lokey, a mergers and acquisitions expert, points directly to our local expertise in serving the specific needs of the government customer. Emerging technologies that are driving changes in the private sector are just as necessary to the government, if not more so. When the government has what Antenucci describes as “demanding and urgent” challenges, it is our local businesses that satisfy the need. She points to cybersecurity as a specific example of this phenomenon. Chuck Brooks, a nationally-recognized observer of technology trends, agreed with Antenucci, adding that “the growth in both the number and quality of cybersecurity companies in greater D.C. has been amazing.”
Owners of businesses that deliver technology solutions and products that government needs will have an additional opportunity: the potential to sell their companies to motivated purchasers. Kevin DeSanto, managing director and co-founder of KippsDeSanto and an expert on mergers and acquisitions, sees current stock market and interest rate trends as providing strong incentives for larger companies to be aggressive about purchasing smaller businesses in 2018. Antenucci strongly echoed this sentiment.
Although reasons for optimism abound, there are also reasons to fear that the pace of government purchasing might be slower than the urgency of the need for new technologies would suggest. Paul Leslie, CEO of Dovel, a government contractor with a focus on health care and life sciences, said in 2017, the pace of government purchasing of technology services was slowed by the steep learning curve of new political appointees getting comfortable with their roles. He was hopeful that with their greater comfort “we will see a release of that acquisition bottleneck this year.”
While that issue is important, the biggest challenge to our region’s government contracting industry is political risk. Wood spoke for many of his peers by observing that while the general public might be inured to it, the lack of a predictable annual budget is a “grossly inefficient way to operate” and makes it very difficult for companies that sell to the federal government. Kilberg agreed this was a serious issue, explaining further that “the serial adoption of continuing resolutions to fund our federal government rather than federal budgets has impeded the ability of businesses to plan or expand with confidence.” Continuing resolutions that extend funding for short periods, and don’t provide for funding for new programs, can be as harmful to our local economy as sequestration or budget cuts.
Based on what I learned, the prospects for government contractors in 2018 reflect both the best and worst of our region’s close relationship with the federal government. This year will provide many of our region’s most entrepreneurial businesses with the revenue opportunities to grow their businesses, while leaving our region more open than are competing regions to economic hardship resulting from political disfunction.
While some will say that the outlook for our government contracting industry should remind us that diversifying our innovation community is an important goal, I also take it as a reminder that it is essential for those of us who care about our region’s future to remain politically engaged.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of TandemNSI, a national community that connects innovators to government agencies. He is host of “What’s Working in Washington” on WFED, a program that highlights business and innovation, and he lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.