How to develop more trusting relationships as a government contractor

Laura Blumenthal
February 12, 2024

Three months had passed since our team requested sign off to gather feedback from government partners on early design concepts for a submission portal. Leadership wanted strong oversight over user research, and there was still no green light after showing research plans and frameworks. 

Meanwhile, a government partner who recently transitioned into a human-centered design (HCD) role sent me a Slack message: She thought the enterprise tool our team was using to manage a cross-departmental initiative was not effective for collaborating with program and policy staff. 

Less than two hours later, she replied with eight responses to a pulse survey from a cross-section of program staff that validated her hypothesis. No—the tool was not useful for cross-departmental collaboration and should be reconsidered. 

What my government colleague did in two hours – doing a quick poll with eight government staff – might have taken a contractor team weeks to accomplish. Why?

Because no matter your years of experience or technical skills, work only advances at the speed of trust. Contractors partnering with government staff need to be able to gracefully communicate context, openly share and internalize feedback, and continuously improve approaches to achieving shared goals.

Without reciprocal trust and connection, we risk delaying project milestones, wasting public resources, and deferring resolutions on issues that actively cause burden and harm.

Signs that there’s not enough trust

The following are some ways a trust gap may show up between contractors and government partners:

A canceled meet & greet appointment.

Contractors are discouraged from scheduling meet & greets with government program or product staff.

A door with a “closed” sign on it and muffled conversation behind it.

Contractors who lead planning and prep for a meeting aren’t invited to attend the actual meeting. 

Approved and denied stamps on a stack of documents for review.

Government senior executives need to review research plans and contacts before contractors can outreach. (This happened in my story above.)

Why building trust is hard to do

Below are key factors that influence contractors’ ability to meaningfully connect with government partners and replenish the “Well of Trust.”

A sketch of a water well, labeled “The Well of Trust.” A bucket was released below the ground line to fetch water (a metaphor for trust). Marker lines are made vertically as you go down the well for (A) The Environment, (B) Resourcing, (C) Past Experiences, and (D) Early Impressions. These four factors influence how much trust, you have work with in a relationship between a government partner and a contractor.

Environmental Context: As onsite working sessions become rarer, there are fewer opportunities for informal discussions that cultivate connection.

Resourcing: Government staff are stretched incredibly thin, and people in leadership are bullish about protecting staff’s time – rightly so!

Past experiences: A new contractor’s reputation can be tarnished by misgivings about their predecessor. Policy and program staff are frustrated from rehashing their needs and not seeing change.

Early interpersonal impressions: When contractors don’t do their homework, such as reviewing background information on a government program, it can sour a relationship.

How to nurture more trusting relationships

We can nurture and sustain trust through how we hire and staff projects, build rapport, and support ongoing collaboration.

Hiring and staffing projects

Staff people on the project who have expertise (aka a Subject Matter Expert, or SME) in the product or service you need to improve. Program and policy SMEs can not only share lived experience; they also hold relationships with and context about government staff. Staffing SMEs on a contract lightens the load on government partners, and SMEs’ bridge-building role supports informal information sharing.  

If you’re interviewing for a job in civic tech, consider showcasing stories about your relationship building approach, not just the artifacts you’ve made. It often matters as much as your technical skill.

Early rapport building

Get to know the person before you meet. Treat it like a job interview. Review their LinkedIn, web presence, and recent “news” about the program they work on.

Review and acknowledge the work others did on the problem before you arrived. I can’t underestimate the value of doing desk research to prove you know your stuff. This builds your context and shared vocabulary, demonstrates respect, and enables you to make stronger arguments for why you may need to “repeat” research on a topic studied previously.

Close the loop. When meeting someone new, follow up with a gratitude message, an informal synthesis of what you heard and learned, or a formal readout when it’s ready. It’s never too late to tell someone how you made use of information they took the time to share with you.

Foster reciprocal relationships. There’s nothing keeping contractors from forming friendships and mentorships with the people who use and deliver the services you work on. Contractors and government staff too can have open, fulfilling bonds.

  • Set up virtual coffees or informational interviews to build comfort, curiosity, and context. 
  • Buddy with policy and program SMEs at the government agency who want to develop their own HCD capabilties.

Facilitating ongoing collaboration

Effusively thank and give credit. People often talk about over-communicating – the same goes for acknowledgements. Name and thank people for their contributions (however small) in presentations and regular updates. Contractors are point-in-time stewards; government staff have the power to sustain work over time.

Keep feedback gathering informal. One example is how my colleague in the story above did a pulse survey via Slack. 

  • Casual feedback: Start by gathering early input from SMEs you have easier access to (we call them “Friendlies;” it’s known academically as a convenience sample). It’s a low stakes way to test your approach and quickly build understanding before any formal research takes place. The more early rapport building you can do, the more Friendlies you will have to informally collaborate with.
  • Asynchronous channels: Try engaging with Friendlies using communication channels like text, Teams, or Slack. Even email or a LinkedIn message can work depending on their preference and proximity.

Incorporate human-centered design principles into existing processes. Whether Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) or something else, working within an established framework lessens the burden on your partners to learn a new vocabulary or mental model just to work with you.

More coffee talk; fewer frameworks

Two cute coffee cups having a chat

Trust building between contractors and government partners is a long game. There are thoughtful ways we can build trust and nurture meaningful relationships without using niche vocabularies, fancy powerpoints, or double-diamond frameworks.  By being intentional about how we staff projects, how we build rapport, and how we cultivate collaboration over time, we can be better government partners and more effective stewards of public resources.

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