By Steve Kelman

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DOD and Silicon Valley: A marriage made in hell?

steve kelman

Last week, with visits by both Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to Silicon Valley, there was a fair bit of media attention to efforts by the national security world to better tap the innovative energy of U.S. high-tech companies. That attention was not just limited to the Washington media or the trade press (like FCW): even the San Francisco Chronicle ran a fairly straight story on Carter' visit, and the New York Times, a few days late, ran a story on Monday.

There are so many challenges to making such a relationship a reality that any sober-minded person might conclude that this is a non-starter, and shouldn't even be tried. Mostly, Silicon Valley is indifferent to government. One of my daughters, who earlier spent time in Washington and now works in the Bay Area, notes that people she runs into mostly just don't care about government one way or the other. And to the extent people might care, most are more privacy-oriented, more likely instinctively to sympathize with Edward Snowden than with the National Security Agency. And, of course, salaries in the Silicon Valley dwarf Washington's, while the work environment is much more casual.

So first a case must be made that the government in general, and the Defense Department in particular, need Silicon Valley. My good friend Alan Balutis, a longtime fed now working for Cisco, wrote last week that "the reality is that if you open up the way you run the procurements, any of the big systems integrators or service providers or medium-sized firms [along] the Beltway would be every bit as innovative and cutting edge and agile as any other firm elsewhere in the world." If that's true, then no push to engage Silicon Valley should be tried, because the probability of failure is too great and the benefits not as big as might be imagined.

But I don't think Alan is right in this case. I am sure there are many innovative individuals at the big federal contractors. But the relative lack of innovation from these contractors involves a history longer and deeper than just the procurement system. It involves the whole government environment, which doesn't often value risk-taking, and the selective recruitment over time of people into government contractor jobs that grow out of that environment. Silicon Valley's record of innovation is so superior to that of government contractors that it's not going to be possible to overcome in the short or perhaps medium term. The federal contractor world, at a minimum, needs to be shaken up by competition from those outside it.

Yet if a marriage between the government and Silicon Valley is unlikely, is there any chance for at least a few dates? I think there might be. Here are a few suggestions for how.

To start with the most operational suggestion, procurement contests for interesting applications to solve government tech problems, which I have written about countless times in this blog, are a way to both avoid the dysfunctional features of federal procurement and have a proven record of attracting small, "garage" players from the private and public sectors. Prizes could be a source of startup capital for young entrepreneurs, who can use the ideas they develop to start a business (though the government needs to be careful about allowing contestants to retain ownership of intellectual property if they are to be attracted to helping the government for this reason).

Second, an advantage of the culture of the millennial generation is its lack of cynicism and positive view toward helping others. Little of this, sadly, now gets expressed in the form of a desire for public service in government. But when DHS Secretary Johnson asked Valleyites to "consider a tour of service to your country," he was on the right track. This will not appeal to all of them by any means, but could resonate with some.

After all, it is amazing how many folks from Silicon Valley the administration has recently gotten to do a stint in government service, including VMware's Tony Scott as federal CIO and Google's Mikey Dickerson to run the U.S. Digital Service. There ought to be a concerted effort to involve the Silicon Valley crowd currently in Washington in a discussion on how best to craft an appeal to attract, if not the Valley mainstream, at least a subculture of public service-oriented techies. Such recruits might serve the government as contractors only sporadically, or work inside government only temporarily, but that's much better than their being on the outside altogether.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Apr 28, 2015 at 9:38 AM


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