When there is a government innovation problem, what is to blame? The Federal Acquisition Regulation is often cited as the main cause by acquisition reform committees. Proposed solutions that focus on fixing the defense acquisition system too often come without specific recommendations and — by focusing like a laser on the FAR — miss the fundamental aspects of the government’s innovation problem. As we debate endlessly about the FAR, disruptive threats increasingly attack our national vitality, industry, infrastructure and security. It is time to focus on the real problem instead of debating contracting regulations.
At the heart of the innovation problem, it’s not about the FAR or about startups solving government problems. It’s about how quickly we can respond to disruptive innovation by bringing the right people and organizations to bear on the problem. The Department of Defense possesses more than enough resources and talent to solve America’s security problems, with almost two million employees and government research and development budgets that exceed those of Facebook, Google, and Amazon combined. Combine those resources with private industry and the United States should be unstoppable. Some solutions may come from within the defense industrial base and others from a woman tinkering in a garage, but government should be able to tap any network quickly to find solutions.
After three years spent building a business in Silicon Valley that forges relationships between government, companies, and students, my partners and I have seen disparate networks coalesce around national security problems in a way that was simply unthinkable just a few years ago. The “secret sauce” to bring the best talent to solve a problem had nothing to do with a new contract vehicle, such as Other Transaction Authority (OTA) which is a government contract vehicle used by numerous defense and intelligence agencies that does not fall under FAR regulations and is intended for “non-traditional” defense companies. Nor did it have to do with the promise of profit. At my company, BMNT, we’ve run a series of problem solving “sprints” around the most challenging national security problems that involve cybersecurity, data analytics, sensing, visualization, machine learning, and other emerging technologies. Through each instance, we were able to entice startups, large corporations, students, technologists, and academic luminaries outside of the defense industrial base to work on these problems, often for free.
The debate between government, industry, and innovation has become so focused on processes that people have forgotten that national security problems are actually interesting. At BMNT, we introduced the “sexiness” of these problems into an ecosystem that has grown tired of using some of the world’s best talent to build apps for teenagers to share photos with each other and order takeout food. It is not that building these apps is a waste of time, but these problems often do not satisfy the souls of some of people who aim to change the world. National security falls under that umbrella for many, and we’ve found no shortage of talented people who want to get involved.
So what is the problem with government innovation? The FAR is a symptom, but fundamentally it boils down to the organizational behavior. The culture and methods by which government people are taught to engage with “outsiders” sits at the heart of what makes the Department of Defense difficult to work with. These behaviors stem from the department’s penchant for leading and managing technological innovation rather than scouting outside of the defense industrial base to support people who can lead innovation. As private industry encroaches into technologies that were once only available to those wielding government checkbooks (think SpaceX vs. ULA), the government’s relationship to technology has changed, but its opaque bureaucratic culture has not.
The insights we’ve gained at BMNT boil down to business practices used by successful businesses from startups to Fortune 500 companies, such as customer discovery, problem identification, minimum viable product development, feedback, and transparency. These behaviors can all be practiced within the FAR as it exists today. Relationship building, a two-way street, is a key aspect of these practices. Too often I see government program managers visit companies and expect a one-sided conversation with the vendor while providing nothing in return from the conversation, such as what led them to the meeting in the first place and what problems they are trying to solve and by when. Compare this venture capitalists, who are transparent with their budgets, timelines, and portfolio characteristics. If they don’t invest, they will provide feedback as to why.
There’s one easy place to start that doesn’t require sweeping change — and will encourage government people to build better relationships with industry: relax the insane approval chain required for travel . Unfortunately, defense program managers still have to rely on internet searches for their market research or for potential vendors to make visits to their office, as government travel restrictions require approvals at the highest levels (sometimes to service senior staff at the Pentagon!) that make it extremely difficult for them to properly scout for technology. Today, the main tools available to government program managers for industry outreach are fedbizopps.gov and industry days which limit their ability to properly build relationships. These arcane restrictions make it virtually impossible to build relationships in the ways a venture capitalist or business developer does.
Travel restrictions are just one recommendation in a series needed for culture change, but if the Defense Department expects it government program managers to act like venture capitalists it should provide them the tools to do so to encourage the inclusion of the best and brightest people to solve our most pressing and complex national security challenges.
Jackie Space is a Partner at BMNT, a company that works to solve national security problems with Silicon Valley speed. A former Air Force officer and aerospace geek, she is passionate about how to make government problems accessible to the best talent and resources.