Be careful what you wish for; Whatever happened to innovation?
Be careful what you wish for
For decades now, we in the information technology community have complained that government officials are unwilling to take risks and that they treat the acquisition process as more important than the quality of the results. We all desperately wanted the procurement reforms of the 1990s.
Now that the government has started to take some risks and agencies are putting results ahead of process, we complain that we are getting what we always said we wanted.
It was frustrating, for example, to read about industry’s response to the Homeland Security Department’s SBInet award and to the Defense Department’s strategy for transitioning from Army Knowledge Online to Defense Knowledge Online.
At the SBInet industry day — which, by the way, was one of the best ever — DHS Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson made it clear that the department was not looking for new or more or bleeding-edge technology. It seemed clear that Jackson said he wanted industry to help DHS decide if and how technology could improve the way we protect our borders. When we heard that Boeing was getting into the fray, we all — myself included — said it couldn’t win. It was too late to the dance, all the best teams were taken and besides, Boeing couldn’t beat Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman. We were all wrong. Boeing put together a unique team with proven skills and a unique approach to a unique problem. We were all surprised.
At the industry day, one of the first questions to Jackson was, “Can you say — categorically — that SBInet will cost less than $2 billion?” And the best of all, without ever reading the Boeing bid or knowing what its solution was, someone declared, “It will fail.”
What is wrong with our community? Just because a unique approach that reportedly wasn’t technology intensive worked and won, do we have to denigrate it? Can’t we accept that the government, with great help from Acquisition Solutions, said it was going to do something different and then did what it said it would do and in the time frame it committed to? Can’t we congratulate the government on its success and wish Boeing well?
We then heard that Lt. Gens. Charles Croom and Steven Boutelle broke some barriers with a strategy for transitioning from AKO to DKO.
The IT community’s response was to become concerned that DOD is bending the rules and taking risks at a time when the enemy DOD is fighting has only one rule: To kill as many Americans as it can. Shouldn’t we in the IT community be saying, “Let’s get DKO through the competitive process as quickly as possible so that DKO can provide needed support for our warfighters and simplify their lives”?
Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. We wanted procurement reform. We wanted performance-based acquisition. Let’s embrace both and show a bit of creativity rather than complaining when our government leaders are finally trying to lead.
Whatever happened to innovation?
Although I do agree with many of the points in your Sept. 4 editorial, “Focusing on results,” there is a point about small businesses that you did not talk about.
Having spent the past 15 years working for systems integrators in the federal market, I have seen vast changes. I remember the ’90s, the heyday of innovation for small businesses. Granted, most of the firms back then were selling vaporware, but everyone was scrambling to create the next great thing.
Most of their ideas went by the wayside with people losing everything, but people were willing to take a chance on creating something new and useful, and a few of them did.
Since the late ’90s, however, there has been a marked change in the business model of most small businesses that focus on federal clients. It has changed from, “What can we develop that would be so great that everyone would want to buy this?” to “How can we become as profitable and attractive as possible in five to 10 years so that a larger company will buy us out?”
How many times in the past years have we seen small business after small business start to rise through the ranks only to be acquired by a larger company? AlphaInsight, Information Systems Support and Titan are but a few that come to mind among the dozens.
When a CACI International or a Northrop Grumman buys a company, there are many reasons it does so. One is to acquire innovative, unique products. A second is to acquire long-term profitable contracts.
My point is that more small businesses feel it is easier to win a set-aside contract and sell out rather than to develop a unique solution and sell out.
So why should we care? First, it is unfair to those small businesses that are trying to build their companies into the next Lockheed Martin when they must compete against CACI, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and others for small-business contracts. If we want this insanity to stop, we need to address this issue and create a level playing field again for all small businesses that want to compete fairly and be innovators.
JRM Resource Management