Congress Scrutinizes DHS, DOD Silicon Valley Offices


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Both departments have until mid-June to provide briefings on their West Coast efforts.

Lawmakers want to know exactly how the federal government plans to take advantage of new outposts in Silicon Valley. 

The House Oversight Government Reform Committee last week requested briefings from the departments of Homeland Security and Defense about their Silicon Valley offices, both of which opened last year. The requests are an attempt to grasp those organizations' "strategic objectives and implementation strategy," the letters said. 

The inquiry comes as federal efforts to work more closely with the private sector and with startups—both to potentially buy cutting-edge commercial technology but also to absorb tech talent—are ramping up. In addition to footholds in Silicon Valley, the government has been recruiting tech professionals from companies such as Amazon and Twitter to join internal tech consultancies, including the General Services Administration's 18F and the White House's United States Digital Service. 

It also coincides with heightened scrutiny of those groups, as lawmakers and watchdogs examine the funding required to maintain those programs. A soon-to-be released report from the Government Accountability Office, for instance, finds that 18F, the agile development consultancy whose paying clients are other agencies, is not expected to break even until fiscal 2018. 

House lawmakers have also expressed fears that DOD's new Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental, or DIUx, office, could be too Silicon Valley-focused. In a markup of the Defense Authorization Act, a House subcommittee in April called the new program a "helpful step" in bridging traditional defense contractors and the nimbler startups, but said it was "concerned by the pinpoint focus on one geographic region." DIUx subsequently announced it was opening another office in Boston. 

DHS' office, which opened in April, is attempting to "mirror the way Silicon Valley and other innovative investment communities work,” DHS Silicon Valley Office Managing Director Melissa Ho said in a statement earlier this year. That office is experimenting with contracts that are more conducive to buying security technology from startups, such as small multiphase awards between $50,000 and $200,000. 

These "Innovation Other Transaction Solicitations" are designed to "implement faster and streamlined methods and don’t carry all the requirements of procurement contracts," a DHS notice said. 

The oversight committee asked for briefings from DOD and DHS as soon as possible but no later than June 14, 2016. 

The committee did not respond to Nextgov's multiple requests for comment about what spurred the inquiries.