DIUx head wants to drive culture change at DOD

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The Defense Innovation Unit Experimental was launched with the goal of rapidly getting commercial technologies into the hands of warfighters, but the head of DIUx said he also hopes to help drive cultural change across the Defense Department.

Since taking over the "rebooted" DIUx in the spring of 2016, Raj Shah has focused on refining the office's contracting process and cutting the time to move from submission to signed contract.

Since May 2016, DIUx has completed 21 contracts using other transaction (OT) authority and the average time is 78 days, Shah said at the New America Foundation Future of War summit in Washington.

The mission of DIUx, he said, "is to do agile culture change.…We are never going to be the acquisition arm of the [Department of Defense], we're not the R&D arm of the department."

DIUx has so far comprised $42 million in program funding, which Shah characterized as a "rounding error of a rounding error" of the DOD budget.

Shah told FCW that the key to DIUx is that it's small enough that it can experiment, fail, learn and rapidly iterate. He said that DIUx has refined its other transaction authority for commercial technology vehicles to the point that it is now conducting training and helping educate other DOD procurement officers in how to use the other transaction authority.

"It's getting the cultures and incentives right to empower contracting officers to feel like they can do that," he said.

"There's tons of authorities ... that apply, tons of flexibility and not just outside the [Federal Acquisition Regulation] in the OT world, but also within the FAR," he said.

Shah argued that the DOD has to be comfortable with taking more risks.

"For us internally, if a team or project team really stretches to try a technology or approach that's really novel but there's technical risk involved ... if it fails because of technical reasons, that's acceptable," he said. "We can stop that project and move onto the next one, and it's not pejorative at all to that person's career."

He said the goal is to avoid process failures or not doing proper diligence. "But technology risk is acceptable and for a certain level we encourage it."

Shah said that the services and combatant commands that are DIUx customers are seeing results, "so they are pushing their own teams to work with alternative methods. It's not a one size fits all, but for specific problem sets and specific types of vendors, it's beginning to scale."

Shah said that in an ideal world, DIUx would work itself out of existence because the DOD would adopt the office's approach to innovation and acquisition.

"The 'experimental' part of our name is critical," he said. "It's not a static organization -- it will continue to evolve as well."

About the Author

Sean Carberry is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence. Prior to joining FCW, he was Kabul Correspondent for NPR, and also served as an international producer for NPR covering the war in Libya and the Arab Spring. He has reported from more than two-dozen countries including Iraq, Yemen, DRC, and South Sudan. In addition to numerous public radio programs, he has reported for Reuters, PBS NewsHour, The Diplomat, and The Atlantic.

Carberry earned a Master of Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, and has a B.A. in Urban Studies from Lehigh University.

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