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Q&A: Silicon Valley Needs Government Buying to Change

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It’s been more than a year since the Homeland Security Department opened its office in Silicon Valley, part of an effort to tap into that area’s network of talent, ideas, and identify potential new contractors.

The Silicon Valley office recently issued its first contract, about $200,000 awarded to a startup designing systems to protect the internet of things. In the early stages, it’s difficult to assess how successful DHS’ plan to absorb technology from the private sector is -- so Nextgov spoke with Chief Procurement Officer Soraya Correa to get her take on the department’s progress. A Q&A with Chief Information Officer Luke McCormack will be published later this week. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

NG: You run DHS’ Procurement Innovation Lab, which aims to reform the federal buying process. How does that fit into DHS’ broader Silicon Valley program?

SC: The Silicon Valley Office isn’t really a procurement innovation. It’s about better understanding startup communities, how they operate and how we can better engage with them. It’s about bringing new ideas for research and development.

When we talk about the Silicon Valley Office, which is a real overstatement -- it’s not an office, it’s about 1.5 people in reality -- it’s not really just about Silicon Valley. About 2.5 weeks ago, we visited Austin and Boston as well, because it’s really about learning how these nontraditional companies ... operate and how we can lure them in so we can get our hands on some of these really innovative ideas.

I don’t like tying Silicon Valley to the PIL, because the PIL is about how we buy. Silicon Valley is about exploring technology, information, how to do business [with nontraditional contractors.] The PIL is how do we make the acquisition process better, how do I work within the confines of the regulations that I’m governed by to make sure I’m doing by procurements in the most efficient and effective manner?

NG: Other than being recruited or getting government contracts, how can private sector tech enthusiasts work with DHS? What do you want them to know?

SC: There are many ways you can come in. You can come in as a subcontractor through another company, you could come in through some of our research and development vehicles.

The Broad Agency Announcement, we specifically designed and targeted for bringing in these types of people. They answer a series of questions. Then, we evaluate that, and for those who have promise, we let them give a 15 minute pitch. At the end of that 15 minute pitch, we give them a go, no-go decision. In other words, if we’re going to give you a contract or not. It’s funded in phases, so there’s an opportunity at any time to drop out of that if it’s not working out.

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NG: Your office has been developing an agile blanket purchase agreement model, similar to 18F’s Agile BPA, called Flexible Agile Support for the Homeland, or FLASH. That would pre-select businesses who can do agile software development, after they prove themselves in a DHS-administered “challenge.” How are you connecting with new contractors as you’re planning FLASH?

SC: There’s very heavy industry engagement. We started publishing information about FLASH, we’ve shared our Statement of Work, we’ve shared our thinking about evaluation criteria. The companies who aren’t really sure if they want to bid, they can post a 4-5 minute YouTube video that we can look at and we can say, ‘Sounds like you’re on the right track,’ or, ‘You might want to reconsider, you might not be the right source for this.’

We hosted an industry day that was very different from other industry days. Instead of standing up there and presenting what would be in the [Request for Proposals], we really had a conversation with industry about FLASH. We set up meetings that industry could sign up for, and spend a few minutes in a room with a government official and ask the most pressing questions about how to do business.

NG: What have you learned from 18F’s Agile BPA experiment, which recently issued its first task order after being halted several times?

SC: The people we have working on these are folks from the Digital Service group, with the CIO, that are in constant communication with the digital services in 18F and the White House. We have looked at that solicitation and how they evaluated proposals. That’s where some of our thinking on the challenge came up, some of our thinking on past performance.

NG: What are startups who are considering working with the government most concerned about?

SC: One of the biggest myths was that we will only consider companies that have federal experience. At DHS, with very few exceptions, with a lot of our strategically sourced vehicles ... we consider all types of experience.

It’s true that some solicitations can be painfully lengthy and require a lot of writing very voluminous proposals. We’re trying to simplify the statements of work ... and we’re trying to slim down that proposal process.

NG: What kind of technology is DHS most interested in acquiring from Silicon Valley, Austin, Boston, or any other commercial startup hub? I know your first few solicitations are about protecting the internet of things.

SC: A little bit of everything. How we can better handle security issues, how do we better protect our networks, how do we better process data ... agile services, what the best way is to develop a system, is it [Commercial Off the Shelf] or [Government-Off-The-Shelf], is it a combination of both.

It could be anything, from IT to technology that is used to protect the border or help process applications, or help applicants applying for benefits. I don’t think we are locked in one area or another.

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