Competitive Strategy and Public Service

Competition isn’t a term that’s bandied around much in government. For many, it elicits aggression that contradicts the collaborative ideal of government service. Others may assume that their program enjoys a policy-defined niche that is immune to mounting pressure, dwindling grants or congressional accountability. Compare this mindset to that to the private sector, where executives rely on the lens of competition to inform investment decisions and target communication to specific customers. Ignoring this usually results in loss of market share and eventually, irrelevance. Competition can come from anywhere – technology disruptors, social trends, regulation, new entrants – making it similarly applicable to government. With Washington tightening its belt each fiscal year, competitive assessment and positioning should be more closely tied to federal strategy.

Regardless of whether an organization is public or private, it should gauge how well it’s doing against others who offer complimentary products and services. (The same goes double for those whose mission or stakeholder base overlaps with another agency.) This is the essence of competitive strategy: taking an honest look at your organization’s strengths and weaknesses, critiquing how well you are equipped to move forward, and then implementing change with confidence.

In order to cut through environmental noise and stay relevant with those who matter, here are four steps for driving competitive strategy:

  1. Define performance metrics: Identify how your organization measures success today, and then ask yourself if these indicators really matter to stakeholders. Key audiences care most about progress towards project completion and visionary goals, and less about staffing decisions, budget allocation, etc. Unfortunately, most agencies today only track their internal capacity to get things done. It’s harder to capture mission impact, but doing so will yield more compelling outreach and adaptive strategy.
  1. Observe Environmental Conditions: Determine the current demand for your organization’s core offerings, and then forecast it out 5-10 years. For each business line, keep in mind the number of stakeholders served, future growth and opportunity to differentiate. If all of the above criteria received high marks, continue to Step 3.
  1. Evaluate Competitive Positioning: Compare your organization’s ability to perform against that of your peers, and don’t limit yourself to government! Brand recognition, cost of delivery and market share affect companies, nonprofits and federal agencies alike; and leaders in different sectors have their own unique style. If your organization stacks up poorly in certain areas, it’s probably best to hold off pursuing that shiny, new opportunity until you adopt more innovative practices.
  1. Prioritize New vs. Existing Opportunities: Whether narrowing focus on core offerings or expanding into new areas, all government agencies need to answer for their decisions. Before investing significant resources in a new project, environmental conditions and competitive positioning should at least display potential. Other opportunities have room for greater debate. A consistent methodology and well-defined performance metrics will help guide internal investments and defend these decisions to external audiences.

What elements of competitive strategy are most relevant to your organization? Do you agree that competition and public service are compatible?