Bureaucratic wall stands between DOD and Silicon Valley

Wikimedia image: Googleplex and the Pentagon.

The yearlong turnaround time for proposals to the so-called Rapid Innovation Fund, the Defense Department’s acquisition vehicle for small businesses, is “not very rapid by Silicon Valley standards, or anywhere,” says retired Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly. Small firms often don’t have the resources to wait that long, and by then they have shopped their technology elsewhere.

The RIF is just one example of how entrepreneurs in tech corridors across the country tend to operate on a much shorter timeline than DOD’s paperwork-riddled acquisition process.

“Silicon Valley companies try to get an edge on competition, while the Pentagon tries to enforce competition,” O’Reilly, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said May 13 during a discussion of defense innovation hosted by the council. “And these different paradigms result in two clearly distinctive behaviors in technical discourse and the speed of actions.”

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter took office three months ago hoping to knock down barriers to innovation at the Pentagon, and his credentials have given observers hope. As a former deputy secretary and top acquisition official at the department, Carter is a technocrat who knows the building and bureaucracy well. He also has ties to Silicon Valley, having recently been a scholar at Stanford University.

But Carter is up against a formidable foe. For example, John J. Young Jr., who preceded Carter as undersecretary of acquisition, technology and logistics (AT&L), has told FCW that the Pentagon has “steadily constructed barriers to entry” for small and medium firms and in so doing favored big incumbent firms. Other former officials strike a similar tone on the difficulty of spurring change at the department. As Paul Brubaker, a former deputy DOD CIO, has put it, “The existing business processes are all designed and optimized to reinforce [the] status quo.”

And so Carter’s ideas for changing the status quo will likely take some forceful implementation – at the highest levels of the Pentagon and among program managers – to succeed.

Last month in Silicon Valley, the defense chief announced multiple initiatives to tackle innovation challenges, including the department’s first full-time outreach in the valley, which officials say will scout emerging technology and build direct relationships with the Pentagon.

O’Reilly said he hopes that office avoids becoming just another “middle man” in the often hampered conversation between commercial technologists and defense officials. Make the introductions between entrepreneurs and defense research labs, for example, and get out of the way, he advised the office. At the moment, “it really is a guarded conversation between technologists [on] the commercial side and the DOD bureaucracy,” said O’Reilly, a former director of the Missile Defense Agency who is now a senior vice president at Alphabet Energy, a Hayward, Calif.-based thermoelectric technology firm.

Accelerating the acquisition process may be all the more important because many emerging defense technologies are flourishing outside the Pentagon’s traditional contracting base. 3D printing, cybersecurity and robotics are examples of fields in which the underlying technology is inherently commercial rather than military, Michael Horowitz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, said during the Atlantic Council discussion.

While the DOD leadership seems committed to building “a culture of experimentation within the Pentagon,” Horowitz said, “I think the challenge is that there are organizational and bureaucratic antibodies within the Pentagon” that are standing in the way.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is a former FCW staff writer.


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