Palantir ruling could tweak Army's innovation track

Two top Army officials reflect on some of the innovation accomplishments of the Obama administration and the challenges that lie ahead for the incoming Trump administration.

soldiers using mobile device
 

As the Department of Defense focuses on the political transition, two top Army officials say that innovation, personnel management and partnership with industry will be key challenges for the Trump administration.

Speaking at an AFCEA breakfast in Washington, undersecretary of the Army Patrick Murphy and deputy CIO/G6 Gary Wang said that the Army must partner creatively with industry to develop the workforce of the future.

Undersecretary Murphy said that one of the legacies of the Army under the Obama administration is the effort to improve collaboration with industry through new innovation mechanisms such as Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) and the Rapid Capabilities Office. Murphy said those initiatives are now formalized to the point that they will continue under the new administration.

"We are trying to partner with you more collaboratively, and being clear with you what our priorities are, what keeps us up at night," said Murphy about working more transparently with industry. "[We are] also making it easier and accessible and sometimes we'll be able to work together and sometimes we won't, but at least we're being straight with one another."

Both officials acknowledged that the recent court ruling in favor of tech company Palantir is a learning opportunity for the Army and its approach to contracting and partnership.

Last week, a federal judge ruled that the Army did not follow existing statute and allow commercial vendors like Palantir to bid on upgrades to the Distributed Common Ground System. The ruling required the Army to reopen the process and evaluate commercially available solutions to the upgrade requirements.

"Anytime you get feedback, even if it's not positive feedback you've got to have lessons learned from it," said Murphy of the decision. He added that some of the criticisms in the ruling were valid and the Army has not yet decided how it is going to respond to the ruling.

"When we move forward, how are we going to construct the contract that allows for where the aperture is opened up for a number of folks to be competing on kind of an even playing field?" said Wang.

He said that one of the problems is that the sharing of sensitive data and sorting out clearances with industry has not been resolved. "I think [the case is] going to force us to think about how we look at that in a more collaborative way."

"I think the other thing is you saw a classic Palantir company out of Silicon Valley who is used to kind of doing business in a certain way come up against or clash against a traditional culture of how we do kind of big DOD," Wang added. "So from that we should take how do we learn from injecting some of that approach into some of the traditional government."

Wang said it's a two-way street, and industry needs to learn more about how to work effectively with government and its particular cultures and constraints.

He said that he hopes the ruling causes the Army to step back and look for better approaches and not reflexively "dig in and be entrenched a bit. But it has been an ongoing kind of adversarial relationship and hopefully this kind of buries the hatchet and says 'OK, how do we kind of move forward smartly?'"

Going forward, Wang said, the Army needs to continue to remove barriers to innovation, find ways protect risk-takers and celebrate failures as learning opportunities.

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