Why isn’t anyone discussing the national security imperative?
As the government shutdown presses forward into unexplored territory, no one is asking what impact the continuing funding delays might have upon IT modernization. This should be a significant concern, as IT modernization is now widely recognized as a national security imperative. The cumbersome and lengthy acquisition process stifles innovation, allows our adversaries such as China to develop and deploy cutting edge technologies far faster than we are able. The loser is our military, who is often saddles with obsolete capabilities. The recently released Third Volume of the Section 809 Panel report states this explicitly- we are on a “war footing” –and the government’s cumbersome acquisition policies are a primary culprit. The shutdown certainly doesn’t help any of this. The authors’can offer no solution regarding how to solve the shutdown. The issues are no longer substantive- both sides see “the Wall” as emblematic to their political base. But we can talk about recent green shoots in addressing the IT acquisition.
Without mincing words or exaggeration, the government has an absolutely dismal record of successful information technology (IT) modernization, especially for the warfighter. Attempts to modernize are plagued with issues from the start- uninformed solicitation specifications, unnecessarily complex compliance requirements, and heavy dependence on traditional government contractors that are geared toward scooping up contract awards rather than serving the end-user.
The consequences are severe. Government IT systems are essentially secluded from commercial IT innovation, in some cases using systems that are more than 50 years old. This goes beyond wasting billions in taxpayer dollars on increased operation and maintenance costs, it is a fundamental threat to national security. Without significant streamlining of the acquisition system the United States cannot hope to compete with countries like China that face far fewer bureaucratic hoops to jump through.
Not all hope is lost. Thankfully Congress has taken steps in the right direction by introducing rapid acquisition techniques across the federal government, including Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase III, Other Transaction Authority (OTA), and the Commercial Solutions Openings (CSO) Pilot Program. Each has unique advantages and disadvantages that can be capitalized upon to make procurement of IT more versatile and impactful than ever before.
Of the three techniques listed, SBIR Phase III is one of the most critical because it shifts the governments focus away from stagnant traditional contractors and toward smaller, more innovative business. SBIR works by allowing the government to share general needs and allow small businesses to utilize their private sector expertise to submit unique and innovative solutions. The government then evaluates the solutions and awards phase-based contracts designed to promote meritorious solutions to move on and those that are insufficient to fail fast and with minimal investment from the government. While the SBIR program brings important features to the table, it is still subject to requirements set forth in the FAR unlike the next technique, OTAs.
OTAs are flexible agreements that that often have minimal standardized requirements, other than cost sharing, and are designed to encourage fast fulfillment with less administrative intervention and overhead costs. Essentially, OTAs allow the government to reach out to and create relationships with the private sector to ensure that both parties get what they want without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops required by the FAR. Despite their traction with the help of thought leadership from acquisition centers for excellence like DHS’s Procurement Innovation Lab (PIL) and the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), Congress has only authorized the OTAs for certain agencies.
Finally, CSO’s are Congress’s most recent effort to make commercial innovation a staple of government acquisition. Like OTAs, CSO’s are not controlled by the rules set forth in the FAR however they also incorporate the open solution model implemented by SBIR Phase III.
The result is a greatly streamlined and innovative acquisition process giving contracting officers immense discretion over the award process. However, this discretion comes with significant restrictions by Congress. Currently CSOs are authorized up to $10 million for DHS and GSA and $100 million in the DoD but are unauthorized for all other agencies.
If the United States hopes to achieve a 21 st century digital government, it must build upon on its existing rapid acquisition techniques and make them standardized across the government.
We suggest that Congress, once reopened, starts by authorizing OTAs and CSOs for all government agencies. To ensure the adoption and use of these techniques Congress should require that agencies either start agency specific acquisition centers for excellence like DHS’s PIL or DIU. Finally, at a minimum phase-based acquisition needs to be the new norm of IT acquisition. While creating connections between the government and the commercial sector is critical, conservation of time and resources is fundamental to ensuring rapid acquisition and modernization.
Widespread adoption and use of these rapid acquisition techniques are essential to the government remaining a technological might to be reckoned with. However, if the government fails to make aggressive steps forward now, it will remain in danger of playing catch-up with its technological rivals and adversaries from around the world.