Telos Blog (January 19, 2021)
-John B. Wood, Telos Corporation
The Alliance for Digital Innovation (ADI), a coalition of forward-looking technology companies seeking to promote accelerated government adoption of innovative commercial technology, recently released its 2021 priorities for action by the incoming Biden Administration and the Congress. I am honored to chair the ADI Board of Directors, and I believe these 2021 policy recommendations will greatly improve government efficiency and benefit the American taxpayers.
ADI’s priorities for action revolve around three key pillars, each containing a number of specific recommendations:
- Pillar 1 — Fix the Way the Government Acquires and Uses Technology Solutions
- Pillar 2 — Secure Federal Networks, Data, and Information; and
- Pillar 3 — Create a Strong Foundation for the Future of IT Modernization
Each of the policy proposals found under the three pillars are worthy of serious review and adoption, but I want to focus on the merits of one particular recommendation found in Pillar 1 – the need to “Expand Innovative Acquisition Authorities.”
Having been the CEO of Telos Corporation, a provider of secure solutions for government and private sector customers, for nearly thirty years, I have repeatedly experienced first-hand the frustration felt by so many government contractors over the federal procurement process. The time-consuming, obstacle-laden path to securing and being able to then fulfill a government contract is often a model of gross inefficiency.
In the cybersecurity sector, time isn’t just money, it’s the enemy of the private sector’s desire to deliver the most effective solutions to meet the critical needs of government customers. Cybersecurity is a particularly dynamic field, and the longer it takes contractors to navigate the procurement process and deploy solutions, the farther behind agencies will fall in the fight against their cyber adversaries.
As noted in ADI’s 2021 priorities, what the government needs to do is expand the use of more agile acquisition authorities in an effort to more effectively pilot and scale commercial innovation within their agencies. Other Transaction Authorities (OTAs) and Commercial Solutions Offerings (CSOs), innovative rapid acquisition authorities which are already available in somewhat limited circumstances, should be made widely available for use by all civilian agencies, not just a select few. Naturally, there should be pilots for these agencies to make sure they learn to properly utilize such authorities, but this should be done throughout the government, and then allowed to be scaled and expanded within agencies as deemed appropriate. Again, time is the enemy, and as the ADI report points out, “procurement must keep pace with the speed of innovation happening in the private sector” to avoid “buying yesterday’s solutions for today’s challenges.”
Many of the best, most innovative technologies today are being developed not by the government but by the private sector, which assumes the burden of the time, manpower and R&D costs to design, test, and deliver these complex solutions to government customers. That’s why the Biden Administration’s Office of Management and Budget should direct agencies to, consistent with the requirements of the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act (FASA) of 1994 and a recent federal appellate court ruling (Palantir USG, Inc. v. United States), adopt and adhere to a more strict “commercial-first” practice for acquiring technology.
Commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) and other commercial solutions which meet the government’s needs should be what the government looks to acquire, rather than seeking to develop its own in-house bespoke solutions, which takes time, often costs the taxpayer more money, and frequently are less capable than commercial solutions. ADI pointed this out several years ago, when it published a report on “Lost Opportunities: The Cost of Ignoring Commercial Innovation,” which concluded that the federal government has wasted hundreds of billions of dollars in the 25 years since FASA was enacted because it has not embraced commercially available IT products.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, technology has been critical to government agencies’ efforts to continue to fulfill their critical missions and serve the public’s needs, and there won’t be any turning back once the pandemic finally recedes. That’s why it’s important for the Biden Administration and Congress to act on these and other policy recommendations set forth in the ADI 2021 priorities document.