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Straight talk from Julie Myers Wood at the Border Security Expo in Phoenix
Julie Myers Wood
When Julie Myers Wood, a former assistant secretary of DHS in charge of ICE, took the podium at the Border Security Expo to serve as a pinch hitter for a scheduled keynoter, John Morton, the current ICE director -- who couldn’t fly to Phoenix due to sequestration-inspired travel restrictions -- she addressed both elephants in the room: sequestration and the possibility that Washington might be moving inexorably towards “comprehensive immigration reform.”
The fast-thinking, fast-talking woman, who now serves as president for compliance, federal practice and software solutions for the consulting firm Guidepost Solutions, quickly acknowledged, “If sequester wasn’t in place, you’d be listening to the current head of ICE, rather than the former head of ICE.”
She noted that very few people in the country seem to have any clear understanding of what the recently-enacted sequestration is all about. In fact, she fondly recalled recently seeing a funny bit on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night television show in which about half-a-dozen regular citizens were asked for their reactions to sequestration and one-by-one they revealed that they had no clue about how this latest Washington budget maneuver was supposed to work. “I have a lot of sympathy for folks in the country trying to sort it out,” Wood said.
Even so, she knew the audience in front of her was all-too-familiar with the broad outline of the sequestration, and deeply concerned that it might trim governmental budgets, reduce or terminate specific government programs, and thus could lead to slashed or cancelled commercial contracts.
Every program is potentially on the chopping block, said the keynoter. “Every decision about a cut is actually about prudence and politics,” she continued. Will there be enough outrage, department officials will be asking themselves. Or will there be too much outrage?
Wood offered some straight-talk about what she sees as the “New Normal” in the border security community during this period of sequestration. “If you want to be successful, here’s what you need to do,” she advised the company executives in the audience.
First, ensure that your product or service relates to the current “core mission” of the department or agency to which you are pitching it. When budgets are being cut, most government offices will only be spending funds on missions that are absolutely central to its primary goals.
Second, trim your price. When departmental belts are being tightened, “the cheaper product is going to be the one that wins the day,” said Wood. Channeling Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, she declared: “Cheap is good.”
Third, don’t expect your prospective government buyer to be an early-adopter of your state-of-the-art technology, if it hasn’t already been proven in the field by another, earlier customer. “Government now says, ‘We don’t want to be the guinea pig’,” she observed.
Fourth, expect the government buyer to be more interested in off-the-shelf technology products, rather than those that require special customization. Government customers are thinking, said Wood, “How can we use what’s already out there.”
Fifth, Wood said she isn’t absolutely certain, but has been sensing that some government agencies are becoming frustrated with some of the large “aggregators” in the security industry, and more willing to turn to the smaller and more nimble suppliers that can provide the innovative solutions they are seeking.
In fact, recalling some of the Goldilocks stories she reads to her young child, Wood predicted that when DHS chooses between the large contractors (the “big papa bears”), the mid-sized contractors (the “mama bears”) and the smaller businesses (the “baby bears”), the winners that emerge might be the papa bears and the baby bears. She thinks the large and small companies are in the best shape, and the medium-sized companies (which in some instances have graduated from some of the government programs aimed to assist smaller firms) are most vulnerable.
“OMB has said, ‘Do what you can to protect small businesses’,” said Wood. It’s the mid-sized companies that will be hurt.
Clearly, winners and losers will emerge from the sequestration blood-letting.
“How bad it will be remains to be seen,” concluded Wood.
When she turned her attention to comprehensive immigration reform, which has recently garnered heightened interest on Capitol Hill and within the Obama administration, Wood predicted that the “budget uncertainties will ultimately cause problems for immigration reform.”
She urged lawmakers and administration officials to focus some of their attention on the continuing need for a “common operating picture” at the border; perhaps based on the best aspects of the earlier SBInet program. She also suggested that it makes sense to utilize the National Guard on the border, but only if its presence is permanent, not if it is only temporary. And she urged those developing a comprehensive immigration reform package to tackle the problem of immigration “over-stays” (who remain in the country past their authorized time period), and the difficult task of identifying illegal employment.
“It will be a challenging couple of years,” she predicted.