JEDI dilemma: Opening the market but where is the dialogue?

The Defense Department's pursuit of the JEDI cloud strategy has the potential to open the market to commercial products and services like never before, but aren't we missing the opportunity to have a broader and more productive discussion?

Sometime in the coming weeks, the Department of Defense is expected to release the final request for proposals for its Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure cloud contract, popularly (or unpopularly, depending on where one sits) known as JEDI. In the works for months and the subject of continuing debate and discussion across the department, industry, and Congress, JEDI would appear to be setting the department up for a single cloud provider, a deal which could be worth tens of billions of dollars.

Of course, nothing is as simple as it sounds. As others have pointed out, JEDI may be a single award contract, but there are other, existing cloud capabilities in use that will continue to be relied upon, including, but not solely, for high security requirements. In addition, DOD officials have gone on the record as saying that the contract will cover less than 20 percent of the department’s cloud needs. Yet, concerns about how it will actually be implemented remain palpable. And while I personally believe the contract should and will include on-ramps and/or other mechanisms to enable other providers to participate, it is likely that the total number of ultimate providers will be relatively small.

It is also apparent that there remains much unexplained about what is easily one of the department’s most discussed and debated procurements. And there is no good reason for that.

That is not to say JEDI is a bad idea. Its proponents want DOD to have access to all the benefits and constant iterating that is typical of the most effective companies in the commercial technology sector. Further, the continued evolution of cloud capabilities is increasingly a result of customer demand and the companies’ focus on the customer experience.

Just a few years ago, a major technology report indicated that for the first time in decades, major innovation in industry was being driven as much by business customers who had come to more fully understand the art of the possible as it was by visionary technologists. 

In other words, the so-called “Steve Jobs theory” (‘the customer doesn’t know what they want until I show them’), was no longer the sole, or even primary, progenitor of innovation. 

This is as true in the cloud environment as it is elsewhere. So, why not construct a contracting vehicle that enables the department to tap into and benefit from those dynamics?

Many might argue with the proposition that the department could not otherwise create a process by which a wider array of DOD cloud providers could do the same. But as things stand today, there is actually little evidence that the acquisition process has matured to a point that would achieve that result.

After all, access to and adoption of best commercial practices has been a core objective of acquisition reform for more than 20 years. But since the major reforms of the 1990s, more than 150 government-unique contract clauses have been added to the list of those required for commercial contracts, thus inevitably diluting the effectiveness, and intent, of the original commercial items statutes.

Thus, many of the commercial technology companies that were able to enter the federal market as a result of those reforms have had little choice but to slowly but surely adapt their business models and processes to the government, rather than, as was intended, the reverse.

Make no mistake; Congress is as responsible as the government procurement policy infrastructure for those added burdens. But that doesn’t obviate the problem or the concern.

Finally, while not the central issue associated with JEDI, the acquisition strategy, as currently constructed, also raises at least the specter of a new conversation about security. If, as seems to be the case, JEDI seeks to bring DOD fully into the commercial cloud ecosystem, does it not follow that at some point the government’s unique security requirements will have to, and perhaps should, be revisited? 

Therein lies the JEDI dilemma. It has the potential to open the door to robust, holistic, discussions about commerciality and the government’s approach to it, of the kind we have not really had in many years.

Indeed, even as clarity around the single award issue and desired end state remains somewhat elusive, there are also other aspects and implications of the program that have not received the degree of focus and depth they warrant. We ought not shy away from open dialogue about them; we should expect and welcome it.

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