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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

Is Silicon Valley really the best role model?

As I read Sean Lyngaas’ FCW story describing the barriers that stand between the Defense Department and Silicon Valley, one message was clear – the acquisition system is rigid, antiquated and hopelessly broken.

Lyngaas was covering a briefing on defense innovation held by the Atlantic Council, and retired Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, a senior fellow at the council, talked about the cultural divide between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon.

“Silicon Valley companies try to get an edge on competition, while the Pentagon tries to enforce competition,” O’Reilly said. “And these different paradigms result in two clearly distinctive behaviors in technical discourse and the speed of actions.”

In other words, DOD moves too slowly for most innovative commercial companies. There is a risk of DOD missing out on emerging technologies in areas such as 3D printing, cybersecurity and robotics, said another speaker, Michael Horowitz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

He rightly observes that DOD leaders are committed to building a culture of experimentation, but there is a disconnect as you move deeper into the Pentagon. “I think the challenge is that there are organizational and bureaucratic antibodies” standing in the way, he said.

He has a point. Senior leaders talk about innovative ways of buying and managing but the men and women doing the actual work too often are so risk adverse that they pull in the opposite direction. Instead of innovation, you get the same old same old of procurement procedures.

I get all of that, but I’m wary of looking at Silicon Valley as a role model. Yes, the government should encourage commercial companies to bring their wares to federal market. But that cultural divide that O’Reilly talks about is there for a reason.

The government is not motivated by profit and has a duty to protect taxpayer dollars. The government needs to be concerned about fairness and a level playing field. It also has social values worth supporting such as encouraging the growth of small businesses.

The government’s mission, whether it is national security or economic development, isn’t addressed through quarterly results.

Instead, the government should take a much more long term view of what it needs and how it buys. And Silicon Valley, and pretty much any other commercial sector, doesn’t take the same long term view as the government should, nor should they.

I have the same skepticism about the challenges and contests agencies are using as well as innovation centers such as 18F. They are schemes born of frustration with how the procurement system works. While they do good valuable work, they are best suited for establishing a proof concept or a pilot, not moving a large complex project across the finish line. And we need to move things across the finish line.

So, what is the answer?

There is a need for better training and more experienced procurement and acquisition staff. This is happening now but it takes time for training and experience to bear fruit, so we need patience, too.

We also need leadership, leaders that will provide cover for acquisition officials to take risk, leaders that will encourage acquisition officials to try new ways of doing business.

We need to dive deeper into the Federal Acquisition Regulations. Smarter ways of doing business are in the FAR already, we just need training, leadership and experience to use the parts of the FAR that can bring innovative solutions to bear.

We also need a change of atmosphere on Capitol Hill. We need congressional leaders who hold agencies accountable and ask the tough questions but don’t spew anti-government or anti-contractor rhetoric.

And finally, we need recognition that it is OK for contractors to make a profit. The government should focus on getting a good price and holding its contractors accountable for delivering against that price. Don’t worry about the profits. Artificially holding profits down is a sure-fire innovation killer.

If we do these things, we’ll have a market that is predictable and attractive to a wide-range of companies, not just government contractors and not just Silicon Valley. The tools are available to do it, but do we have the will?

Posted by Nick Wakeman on May 14, 2015 at 9:32 AM

Reader Comments

Fri, May 15, 2015 Amtower

Nick, many programs, like 18F, seem to be more "window dressing" than plans that can actually bear fruit. You are on target re: training for contracting & procurement, but until the FAR is legitimately disgestable (written so people can understand it, not so lawyers can look for loopholes) ALL of the window dressing programs are going to fail because very few businesses are set up to do business w/ Uncle Sam. They will ALL fail the first audit. Not that I have an opinion...

Fri, May 15, 2015

I appreciate the note of caution, Nick. As a technologist working with the US Gov't, I have certainly seen an incredible emphasis on Silicon Valley companies as this administration transitioned in, circa 2008. While it is obvious to all that the High-Tech R&D engine and VC-fed, profit-margin-optional behaviors of Silicon Valley can be leveraged to benefit government, those same behaviors also present risk. Variable business models present risks to long-term support for the technologies. Break-things-and-start-over methodologies pose IT-driven (vs personnel, politics or policy-driven) risks to Federal projects. While clearly Silicon Valley should have the same opportunity to compete for Federal work as everyone else, the halo they enjoy for being shiny and innovative should be appropriately balanced by the risks they present to the implementation and support process. They should be allowed to compete, but via the same set of rules as everyone else, and their IT shiny-objects must be subjected to the same scrutiny and risk assessment during acquisition processes as anyone else's bid would.

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