Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

Laurie Morrow, Director of Research Services, Market Connections, Inc.

When doing research regarding perceptions and attitudes of key stakeholders, it is often very challenging to gain feedback that may be brutally honest or even negative.  The reality is that the most honest feedback from research is always the most valuable and provides organizations with the insights needed to enhance performance.

The Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) recently undertook an aggressive research effort to gauge perceptions of its suppliers.  After Maurice C. Stewart, Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), joined the VA a few years ago, he undertook the tremendous challenge of rebuilding the agency’s reputation with suppliers, many of which were unsatisfied with the VA.

Beginning three years ago, Stewart led an initiative called the Supplier Relationship Transformation (SRT) program.  In order to thwart discontent, VA officials began surveying vendors and traveling around the country to host industry forums.  The feedback the agency received was often hard to swallow, but they were able to begin developing targeted, multifaceted plans to make its processes with suppliers better.  This was no easy task.  Stewart recently told Federal Computer Week, “Initially, some folks were reluctant to read what was reported on the surveys.”  Essentially, the VA recognized there was a problem and took the bold step of facing it head on.

When doing research much like the VA undertook, we recommend starting with qualitative research (like in-depth interviews [IDIs] or focus groups) that allows organizations to flesh out the actual issues and hear directly from the stakeholders.  We then recommend following up with quantitative studies (online or phone surveys), in order to properly validate the issues at hand.  The VA did it right by implementing semi-annual supplier perception surveys, quarterly internal customer perception surveys and events including annual webinars and ongoing supplier outreach forums.

For instance, the VA was able to track measureable progress. Vendors were asked to use a five-point scale to rate VA’s performance in specific areas. When the first survey was conducted in October 2010, the agency scored 3.5 or higher in only two areas. In the second and third semi-annual follow-up surveys, companies gave VA a rating of 3.5 or higher in four areas.  Obtaining feedback from industry sources is greatly important.

When digging through the research it is imperative to listen to all points of view, negative or positive, and then prioritize which ones are the most important to act upon.  After identifying the major issues, we recommend assigning people who are accountable for addressing these challenges.  Then, it is important to effectively communicate with everyone involved.  This way, the entire team is on the same page and can act on the findings in a timely fashion.

By not trying to address all of the issues at once, or biting off more than you can chew, positive change will happen — creating better relationships with stakeholders as a result.

The effort should not stop after the initial evaluation.  It is best to do follow-on research after 12-18 months to ensure that the issues are being fully addressed.  Communicating and providing a follow-up survey with stakeholders gives organizations a chance to see what improvements are being made.  It also shows the stakeholders that someone is listening and action is being taken.  The initial effort is your benchmark and the subsequent research tracks and confirms that the plan for improvement is working.

When embarking on a widespread program evaluation such as the VA’s, you must conduct upfront communication with all internal team members prior to the measurement and evaluation stages.  For instance, providing clear instruction to your team that you are soliciting feedback from stakeholders and there is a high probability that negative feedback will occur will help make things more palatable. Provide a clear message that the objective is to collect information to facilitate improvements for the betterment of the agency.

The General Services Administration (GSA), which handles $50 billion in business volume annually, is also looking to improve vendor communication and relationships.  Steve Kempf, commissioner of GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service (FSA) stated that they are in the planning stages of launching a supplier relationship management initiative.

Taking a page from the VA, the agency recently surveyed 50,000 contractors to gain an understanding of how FAS is perceived as a business partner.  The results will lead to specific action plans to build positive relationships with vendors.  Additionally, the GSA has been reaching out to companies earlier in the contract development process to help in this initiative.  The GSA’s Interact website hosts a community for industry members who are interested in providing input about the agency.  This proactive approach is a great step toward building better relationships.

The VA and GSA should be commended for addressing performance by using research as the foundation for improving relations with suppliers.

On Thursday, May 17, Market Connections will present the first of a two-part webinar series for government program professionals on how to build a program evaluation roadmap to drive the change management process. For more details and to  register, click here.

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