Stop Blaming Innovation Barriers on Acquisitions

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It's an easy scapegoat.

Despite the government’s reputation of being slow on the uptake, federal agencies are aware of how far they lag behind the private sector technologically.

The departments of Homeland Security and Defense and other agencies in the intelligence community have opened offices in San Francisco, Boston, and Austin to enhance the way they operate through proximity to cutting-edge tech companies. Some agencies like the United States Agency for International Development have appointed chief innovation officers.

Still, the government struggles to innovate. What do I mean by the word innovate? As Merriam Webster puts it, to “do something in a new way,” which can be challenging for a government impacting the lives of millions.

Aside from the high stakes and various other go-to culprits, the federal government often points fingers at long acquisition timelines, antiquated procurement processes, and risk-averse government contractors as barriers to innovation.

After all, the government is buying artificial intelligence technologies and capabilities the same way it buys airplanes and ships: by spec. The acquisition process incentivizes lengthy timelines and thus gives the advantage to stale incumbents. Unsurprisingly, these symptoms don’t help make government agencies function better.

Even as someone deeply in support of acquisition reform, I know acquisitions can make for an easy scapegoat. I also know that folks in the federal government might agree with me that many of the tools and flexibilities we need already exist in the Federal Acquisition Regulation and innovative procurement vehicles. The government has over-interpreted those tools, doesn’t know they exist, or is too afraid to try them. 

Recent efforts to overhaul the acquisition process include the congressionally mandated Section 809 Panel review of Defense acquisition reform, National Defense Authorization Act reform incentivizing new procurement methodologies, and the uptick of other transaction authorities. 

The truth is that the acquisition workforce can only do so much. Innovation is a team sport, and agencies across government can take deliberate steps to move acquisitions forward for the better.

DIY Procurement Reform

In just the last six months, Dcode has trained more than 200 government leaders across finance, procurement, and programs. As we covered defining problem statements effectively, innovative procurement methods, and the emerging tech landscape, some key points seemed to stand out and resonate the most.

Follow good examples. Before you do anything, take a look at other government leaders and agencies that have pursued innovative procurement through groups like the Federal Systems Integration and Management Center, known as FEDSIM. Check out the new Commercial Solutions Opening process, OTA consortiums, and Defense groups like AFWERX, which overhauled the Small Business Innovation Research process. There are also lots of lessons to learn from government-run challenges that agencies like NASA have launched in search of private sector tech that can solve critical challenges.

Learn procurement methodologies yourself. Without at least foundational knowledge, working across teams to try something new will be all the more difficult. And you can forget about pushing back on a risk-averse procurement office if you don’t know what you’re talking about. 

Team up with procurement. Once you’re ready to explore commercial technology that could support your mission, involve procurement early. Don’t wait until after you have made every decision to put your project on procurement’s radar because you’re going to want to have that support and make clear that you’re on the same team. 

Imagine sitting at your desk in procurement with a 10-mile-high stack of papers burying you, and someone you barely know walks in and says, “Make this happen.” Without any say in the process (or at the very least a heads up) and no context or connection to the mission, would you make the blindsiding request a priority?

From the start, communicate to the procurement team what you are aiming to accomplish and ask for help in getting there. Bring the procurement team along for the ride the way Customs and Border Protection brought its contracting leaders to the border. While your goal might not entail flying helicopters around borders, showing procurement your work and perspective go a long way toward understanding.

Stop writing narrow statements of work. Focus on the problem you need to solve and not the exact solution you think you need. Frame your search as “I need a way to…” instead of “I need this exact, specific tool to solve the problem from my perspective.” 

Setting stringent requirements mistakenly blocks emerging technologies from bidding. In today’s world where tech companies can ship software updates 1,000 times a day, requirements are almost definitely already behind by the time you make them public to start scouting.

Take control of your market research. During Dcode training for government leaders, we hear constantly that programs leave market research to the contracting team. Expecting procurement teams to also be experts on artificial intelligence solutions is like relying on your accountant to install your solar panels. Rethink market research because it’s not a simple FAR checkbox, and private sector tech companies are not monitoring the Federal Business Opportunities website.

Decipher policy from law from myth. Start with a straightforward myth-busting memo that debunks ideas like "product demonstrations are too complex and provide limited value for acquisition personnel." We see the value every week of connecting tech companies and federal agency leaders for product demos and discussions about government needs.

Find the coalition of the willing. Work with contracting professionals who are ready to push the envelope and serve as partners and resources for future programs. Some agencies have even set up “get-to-yes” teams. One of the truths that Dcode’s tech accelerator and government training programs have uncovered is that lots of people are incredibly eager to tackle critical challenges in government through commercial innovation. You’re in good company.

Meagan Metzger is the founder and CEO of Dcode, a privately-owned company connecting the technology industry and government to solve critical challenges through commercial innovation.

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