Can DHS purchase innovation?

Shutterstock image (by retrorocket): Cutting red tape.

Everyone wants more innovation at federal agencies. Despite a storied history of funding and developing new technologies like the microchip and the Internet, the federal government still carries around a reputation as an innovation killer.

At a Jan. 31 reverse industry day hosted by the Department of Homeland Security, government officials and members of industry fingered what they believe to be one of the primary culprits: the staid, restrictive federal procurement process.

Cos DiMaggio, managing partner at The Tauri Group, lamented that government procurement has grown increasingly focused on checking off boxes and meeting a litany of technical requirements, in effect rewarding the least creative but most compliant proposer.

“Winning contracts has become more and more about being compliant with the RFP requirements and giving the lowest price, as opposed to taking some risk, providing innovation and proposing to you all what we believe would be the best answer to solve your problem,” he said.

Cynthia Mar, chief technology officer for the Homeland Security division of Microsoft, echoed those thoughts. She argued that if DHS and other agencies are truly seeking innovative proposals, they can’t put their thumb on the scales by asking for a particular product or solution.

“Don’t tell us you need a firewall with IP remediation in it," Mar said. "Tell us you need to thwart the attacks coming: the living off the land attacks, ransomware attacks, phishing attacks. That’s the end goal, not that you need a firewall.”

Barry West, senior accountable officer for risk management at DHS, cited events like the reverse industry day and the Procurement Innovation Lab, which is designed to lower barriers of entry and create an experimental environment for non-traditional contractors, as examples of the ways DHS has attempted to embrace and foster innovation in recent years.

However, he said direct outreach and engagement with procurement officials was still the best way to communicate industry needs when project or RFP requirements appear too restrictive.

“It’s not just about going to see the CIO. You should be going to see the small business advocates, your procurement officers,” said West. “Because they play, in many cases, a more important role [in acquisition] than the CIO.”

A major topic of discussion was how to bring newer, smaller start-ups that may be on the cutting edge of innovation but have no experience contracting, into the federal procurement process. West said the department’s Silicon Valley program, which is spread across eight separate locations across the country, found that many small tech businesses shy away from contracting because of a perception of an overly constrictive environment.

“The start-ups…they want a commercial product. They’re not thinking about the government,” said West. The advice these companies get from investors is “don’t even think about the government. The government will kill a start up faster than you can imagine.”

Douglas Maughan, director of the cybersecurity division at DHS and senior executive for the Silicon Valley program, acknowledged that the current contracting process does not do a good job of building out room for companies to take risks or propose new ways of addressing a problem.

“We’ve got to get out of the business of building satellites, which is to put the contract in place, never change it for five years, and then it’s obsolete,” said Maughan. “We should be changing those technologies and contracts throughout the entire time and adding new innovation."

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.


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