The administration must engage cutting-edge tech companies that will drive economic prosperity and keep the U.S. ahead of its adversaries.
The Biden-Harris administration has shown a clear dedication to investing in technology. IT modernization took a front seat in the American Recovery Act this spring, with an unprecedented $1 billion investment in the GSA’s Technology Modernization Fund, or TMF, and a host of priority IT modernization projects funded across various agencies.
The president’s proposed fiscal 2022 budget continues that trend, with major increases in IT modernization, cybersecurity and the largest proposed research and development budget the Department of Defense has ever seen. The budget provides additional funds for emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, high-performance computing and biotechnology to foster innovation and support economic growth.
We applaud the administration’s investment in strengthening America’s innovation ecosystem but it will take more than just dollars to achieve these goals. The administration must engage cutting-edge tech companies that will drive economic prosperity and keep the U.S. ahead of its adversaries.
TMF has struggled to get contracts awarded partly due to a bureaucracy that inherently leans toward entrenched contractors who know how to navigate the process. Innovative acquisitions priorities—like the DOD’s other transaction authority—that were implemented specifically to reach non-traditional, outside-the-beltway innovators have seen more than three-quarters of awards go to entities that are already doing defense contracting, according to a Center for Strategic and International Studies report.
As the administration pours billions of dollars into tech modernization and innovation, where that money goes matters. The status quo will lead to the vast majority of that investment being captured by the classic contractor base that knows how to navigate the traditional contracting process.
The Biden-Harris administration and government leaders will need to take several steps if they want these new funds to actually reach into the private sector for cutting-edge innovation and transformative IT systems.
Leaders across the U.S. government have recognized that the federal workforce needs to fundamentally change the way they do business to effectively adopt new technologies. The first step is fostering a workplace culture that prioritizes innovation. Understandably more risk-averse than the private sector, the bureaucracy of the federal workplace can lead employees to be afraid of pitching or testing new ideas that could improve mission outcomes. Create an environment of psychological safety so that employees are able to stick their necks out without fear of having it cut off.
Another way to put those innovation dollars to good use is to make sure that the federal workforce has the tools needed to engage with tech effectively. Innovation training around how to frame problems, evaluate solutions like an investor, and embrace agile procurement is an important step toward achieving this objective. Prioritize investment focused on helping employees navigate contracting, compliance, and other bureaucratic hurdles.
Federal agencies don’t have to pursue the innovation journey alone. Program officers and managers can utilize alternative funding to lean on experts from inside and outside government. Innovation hubs and “swat teams” like the Defense Innovation Unit and the U.S. Digital Service can provide resources to help make use of the right commercial tech while avoiding a long, painful procurement path in the wrong direction.
Government leaders should also engage and leverage the emerging tech landscape often to assess what is available to accelerate mission outcomes. That’s why we provide acceleration and education programs for tech companies, venture capital firms and government leaders—to drive real, lasting results in improving the government’s tech stack. Lean on private-sector partners to better understand the tech industry before making investments.
The Biden-Harris administration is right to prioritize investments in tech and innovation, and passing a forward-leaning budget is just the beginning. Making smart use of these investments will take hard work with people at all levels—in government and the tech industry—to bolster America’s innovation ecosystem, drive economic growth, and maintain a competitive edge globally.
Nate Ashton is the policy managing director at Dcode and former associate director for national security and foreign policy in the White House Presidential Personnel Office.
Lisa Gaisford is the government managing director at Dcode and former federal employee and Office and Management and Budget examiner.