Necessity is the mother of Navy acquisition reform

Victor Gavin the Navy's Program Executive Officer for Enterprise Information Systems

Victor Gavin, head of Navy PEO EIS, says the new "Innovation Cell" is about having an "open conversation" with vendors.

The Navy's enterprise IT shop has unveiled an acquisition model designed to address the longstanding challenge of keeping pace with industry innovation. The "Innovation Cell" run by the Navy Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems will get interested vendors involved in the acquisition process earlier on, officials say.

"We're doing this out of necessity," Jeff Frailey, the project’s operations lead said March 26 at a rollout to industry. "It should not take longer to acquire the technology than the life span of the technology itself." A member of the AFCEA Nova audience, which featured vendors big and small, said, "Amen."

The Innovation Cell is an assessment framework, not a physical office. The first fruit of the framework will come next week, when PEO EIS issues three "enterprise challenges," or descriptions of IT needs, to industry. Those announcements will be in data analytics, virtualized desktops and network architecture for unified communications.

After the enterprise challenges come four assessment phases designed to help the Navy's program management offices narrow and specify the requirements they want for a particular acquisition. In the meantime, officials hope, the Navy will get clearer insight into the latest commercial technologies, while industry in turn gets an earlier peek at acquisition requirements.

"I think it's a good idea. Will it work? I think time will tell," Stan Forbes, a vice president at CACI, told FCW on the sidelines of the conference. "There are a lot of challenges in the bureaucracy. … It just takes so long, typically, for the government to react to industry initiatives."

"One of the really frustrating parts for industry right now is … because of the procurement law and the litigious nature of every solicitation, we're not getting the opportunity to engage with the government and share ideas and have a dialogue," he added. "So anything that contributes to that discussion, that ability to talk to them at any level, I think is a good initiative."

Larry Ebeling, president of 4 Star Technologies Inc., a much smaller firm, was also cautiously optimistic about the new acquisition model. That Navy PEO EIS sent its technical experts to the conference was encouraging, he said, adding that he would like to see more of that in the future. The key for Navy acquisition in the future, however, will be for the service to get more comfortable giving industry a sense of acquisition requirements earlier on in the process, he added.  

The initiative will, to a certain extent, be about courting small businesses such as Ebeling's. "If you’re not a traditional defense contractor, that's quite OK," Frailey told the audience. "We want to get you engaged in this process."

Communication breakdown

The head of Navy PEO EIS, Victor Gavin, acknowledged industry's concerns about communication in the acquisition process.

"Communication stops" once the Navy issues an RFP because of acquisition rules, he told reporters after the conference. The Innovation Cell is about having an "open conversation [with vendors] about what the possibilities are before I get to that point of having to lock down the conversation," Gavin said.

Navy officials have for some time been looking for flexibility within the Federal Acquisition Regulation, the vast body of rules governing purchasing. Gavin said he sees the Innovation Cell as a means of experimenting with multiple contracting vehicles allowed under FAR.

"We'll be using every vehicle we know, every innovative acquisition vehicle opportunity we know, to help us accelerate" new technology adoption into the Navy enterprise, he said. 

The initiative could have ripple effects across the Defense Department. On a recent call with reporters, DOD CIO Terry Halvorsen said the Innovation Cell is "on my radar" as a possible means of encouraging innovative acquisition at DOD. In Halvorsen's previous role as Navy CIO, he was closely involved in discussions to set up the Innovation Cell, but it was too early to tell how the framework might be adopted in other parts of DOD, Gavin said.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Prior to joining FCW, he was a reporter and editor at Smart Grid Today, where he covered everything from cyber vulnerabilities in the U.S. electric grid to the national energy policies of Britain and Mexico. His reporting on a range of global issues has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Diplomat and The Washington Post.

Lyngaas is an active member of the National Press Club, where he served as chairman of the Young Members Committee. He earned his M.A. in international affairs from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and his B.A. in public policy from Duke University.

Click here for previous articles by Lyngaas, or connect with him on Twitter: @snlyngaas.


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