How consultants help break the government inefficiency myth

If you’re an entrepreneur in the D.C. region, you likely have many friends who work as technology consultants to the federal government. It’s one of largest industries in our region, but how many people actually know what these consultants do on a daily basis? Robert McNamara, managing director at PwC PS, hopes to clear up some confusion. PricewaterhouseCooper’s Public Sector, now called Guidehouse, recently spun out of PwC as its own company, giving McNamara the chance to start from scratch, putting together a new team and devising new strategies for making the government more helpful and efficient.

ABERMAN: Well, I’m sure I’m not alone in expressing at least a little skepticism about the idea of creating efficiency in government. How do you actually go about doing that?

MCNAMARA: I’ve had the opportunity to work with public sector entities, and providing them advisory management, technology, strategy, consulting, for fifteen years now, and it’s really been a fantastic career path for me, personally, because you’re actually day-in, day-out able to help organizations achieve what they’re trying to achieve, whatever their mission or goal is. For a commercial entity, oftentimes this is just increasing profits, or being able to capture new market share, introduce new products.

For a public sector entity, it’s helping them help citizens, in many ways. Helping them provide additional services, to help them run more efficiently so that funding then goes to provide the benefits to citizens, and that gives you an additional reward from what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis, whether it’s improving a management team and leadership capabilities, helping them apply technologies in new and innovative ways to accomplish their mission, or working with their operations and driving out, whether it’s efficiencies or process improvements.

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ABERMAN: Within the private sector, I think people intuitively get the idea that if you improve how something works by using software that makes it better, or you teach people to be more effective, that makes a business more profitable. People get that. I’ve had a lot of folks, many who live outside of D.C., say that people who work in government really don’t care about efficiency, and there’s no profit motive. So, why do people that you work with, why do they care, and why do they listen to your recommendations?

MCNAMARA: Well, it’s an interesting question because, while there’s no profit motive, there’s actually a higher-level motive based on the mission these organizations support. So, let me give you a couple of examples. For the VA, if you can apply technology to reduce the wait time of veterans do get a doctor’s appointment, you’re actually improving individuals’ health. And that’s a large incentive to many people who work at the VA. They’ve been there their entire careers. While they may not be interested in whether or not the VA is a commercial entity, driven for profit, they are passionate, and live every day to help veterans get the care that they need.

Another example is the Postal Service, one of the many federal agencies that exist that we know of, but one of the few people actually deal with on a day-to-day basis. You know, their mission of making sure everyone has access to mail, packages, communications, that’s changed in the digital age over the last twenty years. They still have the focus of driving out high quality service, reaching all Americans, making sure there’s equity in the access to information and logistics services, both for small businesses and large businesses, and the individual customers they serve. So, the leaders of that organization feel passionate about making sure citizens have the service and support they need.

ABERMAN: It strikes me that what you’re really getting that is that, people who work in government actually want to do the right thing. Maybe more often than we give them credit for.

MCNAMARA: That’s completely true in almost all the organizations I’ve worked with. People stay at government agencies, and another public sector institutions, because they believe in the mission, what the organization is trying to accomplish. On a daily basis, they have the same challenges that management and employees in commercial sectors have, and they navigate those challenges to do the best they can, from my experience, to accomplish their goals, to provide the services that the organization is trying to provide, and get things done.

ABERMAN: Interesting. Do you think that the mission aspect of this is maybe the biggest reason why somebody would choose to be a public sector-oriented consultant, vis-a-vis a private sector consultant?

MCNAMARA: That’s been part of the reason I’ve chosen that path, but from speaking with a lot of colleagues who have done this for decades, that is a large component of what they enjoy about serving public sector organizations, that there is an opportunity to add value beyond the profit line. And when you measure results at the end of a project, or an initiative, then you can use terms like, how many more citizens were served, or how many more people got benefits, versus just dollars and cents.

ABERMAN: Well, I’m a startup guy, I’ve been around many entrepreneurial ventures. I find somewhat interesting: what’s it like being part of a startup that spins out of a larger organization, with a bunch of people? How entrepreneurial does it actually feel?

MCNAMARA: It actually feels very entrepreneurial. So, a little bit of background: I was at a large consulting firm, over 420,000 people, and transitioned to PwC’s Public Sector business. Once again, part of a very large organization. And it was recently divested, and it’s now owned by a private equity firm, independent entity, and we’re rebranding ourselves in the federal market. So, it’s a really exciting time. There’s over 1,600 professionals working in the business, so, while it’s a quote-unquote startup, it has a large base, and serves most of the major federal agencies.

But at the same time, it has an incredible leadership team, and a real spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship throughout the organization. So, you really feel like you’re at a much smaller, nimble, flexible organization. I’ve been given the opportunity to build a strategy practice, something I’d led in the past, with a dedicated focus on IT strategy, and helping government agencies, other public sector institutions better apply technology to achieve their objectives.

ABERMAN: So, the next time somebody comes up to you and says, what you do all day, sounds to me like they’ll get an answer. Most important thing: what’s most fun about this job?

MCNAMARA: The thing I enjoy most about this job, other than working with a lot of smart, talented colleagues, and getting to think creatively about technologies, new digital capabilities to have organizations advance what they’re able to do, is serving the clients. We have a tremendous number of committed clients that I’ve had the opportunity to work with. When I first started in this profession, some of them answered President Kennedy’s call for service, that’s how they first entered the service, and they’ve been doing it for 30-plus years. Now, a lot of these roles are transitioning to millennials, and the spirit, for them, is simply the same.

They want to help others, they’re passionate about what the organization is trying to accomplish, and when you have a client that cares about those things, then you want to do everything you can to help them. And when they succeed, whether the organization meets their goals, provides better service to citizens, makes sure people get their benefit checks, makes sure people get healthcare services they need, or warfighters have the logistics and materials they need to be successful overseas, they not only feel tremendous personal pride, but you get the satisfaction of not only helping their customers be successful, or the citizens they serve, but also you see them progress in their careers and grow. And that provides me, personally, with a tremendous amount of satisfaction.

ABERMAN: Well, Robert, thanks a lot for coming in and demystifying an important industry here in the region.

MCNAMARA: It was great to be here. Thank you, Jonathan.