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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

Is acquisition innovation going mainstream?

It was probably four years ago that I was moderating a panel on acquisition with an official from the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental organization known at the time as DIUx.

Experimental is gone from the name, but DIU continues on.

I asked this official if the concept of innovative acquisition spreads, which is one of DIU’s goals, would he be out of a job one day.

It drew a laugh, but he also said that he hoped so.

A lot has changed since then and you see plenty of signs across the market that the use of innovative acquisitions have spread across the government as agencies push for new technologies and solutions, plus quicker ways of buying.

Over the last week, we’ve seen two clear signs of how far this trend has gone. Michael Brown, director of DIU and a former Symantec CEO, has been nominated undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment.

President Biden has also nominated Robin Carnahan as the next administrator of the General Services Administration. She’s a veteran of GSA’s 18F organization, where she ran the state and local practice. Most recently, she was a fellow at the Georgetown University Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation.

So we have two people steeped in the belief that that the government needs to be more innovative with how it buys and how it delivers services.

When you think about the challenge ahead for many agencies of modernizing and transforming their operations, it will be good to have two veteran innovators at the top of such large and influential organizations.

Industry should be applauding their nominations.

A couple highlights from their careers:

Carnahan is the former Missouri secretary of state and since joining 18F in 2016 has been a proponent of more collaboration and coordination between levels of government. More recently, she’s spoken about how the pandemic has exposed weaknesses in how social services such as health and unemployment benefits are delivered.

The country lacks the infrastructure to respond to crises. “Not having that digital infrastructure undermines people’s trust in government to work at the time they need it,” Carnahan said.

Brown has led DIU since 2018 and is a former CEO of Symantec and Quantum. He’ll bring some Silicon Valley sensibilities to a higher level at DOD.

Last year, he spoke about the need to incentivize companies to focus on long-term investments and research and not short-term gains. There is too much of a focus quarterly results, he said.

I hope that perspective extends to government as well so that agencies stop asking companies about profit margins and trying to determine what an appropriate profit is.

I think one of the most important things these two nominees can bring their organizations is cover. There are a lot of people doing innovative things across the government but there are far too many that are too risk adverse. Too afraid of failure.

Failure is not a horrible thing, if you embrace it and learn from it.

Carnahan and Brown can provide that cover that encourages those under them to try new ways to buy and deliver services. Not everything will work, but at least some will and we’ll all benefit from that.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Apr 07, 2021 at 8:22 AM

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