No Easy Fix for Silicon Valley Angst About Government Contracts

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CBP’s acquisitions chief urges patience, understanding over protests against border contracts.

Political protests against contractors that assist with controversial Trump administration priorities such as ramping up security along the southern border has become a “huge problem” for Customs and Border Protection, a top acquisitions official said Thursday.

The issue has made it particularly difficult to attract fresh ideas from innovation hubs such as Silicon Valley, Mark Borkowski, an assistant commissioner who leads Customs and Border Protection’s acquisitions office, said during a panel discussion at Government Executive Media Group’s Fedstival conference last week.

“It’s a huge issue for us in terms of our access to markets, our access to competition, our access to the best thinkers,” Borkowski said.

He cited Google’s decision to remove itself from competition over the Pentagon’s multibillion-dollar Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure cloud after employees raised concerns about a separate Pentagon contract for artificial intelligence.

Borkowski also cited protests outside of a Custom and Border Protection contractor that offered the agency “transformative” opportunities. He didn’t name the contractor but Salesforce and Palantir have faced protests over their contracts with the agency.

Among Silicon Valley firms, concerns about political fallout often come on top of a general anxiety about the “deadly embrace of government,” said Anil John, technical director of the Homeland Security Department’s Silicon Valley Innovation Program.

In particular, the lead time for government contracts is often too long for startups that need faster infusions of cash to stay afloat, John said.

John’s organization has tried to ameliorate that concern by shortening the lead time for contracts to 30 or 45 days, he said. In order to do that, the program relies on other transaction authorities contracts, which can be processed much faster than many traditional government contracts, he said.

Despite political concerns, John’s program has been able to deliver a substantial amount of technology to Customs and Border Protection, Borkowsi said.

There’s no quick fix for overcoming Silicon Valley hostility to some government programs, Borkowski said. Instead, he urged patience and an open mind.

“I just think we have to take that as something we understand, we recognize and, frankly, we need to respect,” Borkowski said of protests and political disagreements over border security measures. “As members of government, we need to understand that community represents the public as well and we should be listening to them.”