the lectern banner

By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

A sobering take on government contractors: What can be done?

Shutterstock image.

In my last blog, I presented the candid observations of a long-time, senior-level industry executive in the government IT market about problems contractors have meeting agency customers' desire for innovative, cutting-edge solutions. Government contractors, my source argued, are oriented to responding to RFPs rather than seeking innovations, and are loathe to risk their own funds in developing innovative solutions from the beginning.

The post got a lot of very interesting and thoughtful comments from readers. At the risk of being unfair, I thought some posts shoed a bit too much of "don't blame contractors, it's the government's fault" for my taste -- I would have preferred if people had looked at themselves in the eye a bit more instead of saying that government wasn't interested in innovation or that auditors wouldn't allow contractors to spend serious money on R&D. My own view is that a culture of "respond to RFPs, don't think for yourselves" is not inevitable for any government contractor. Alternative success models are possible.

It is, however, correct to state, as a number of responses did, that there are real limitations to the ability of contractors to be the source of innovations for which the primary market would be commercial rather than governmental. (Cloud computing is an example, but most of what Silicon Valley does is of this type.) It is not cost-effective for a government contractor to put the necessary resources into an innovation that would serve the commercial market primarily and the government market only secondarily -- it is rational, instead, for these investments to be made by commercial firms that can spread their investments over both commercial and government sales. Cutting-edge technologies with commercial application will and should continue to come from commercial firms; what one might reasonably expect from government contractors is to have an innovation mindset. That way, they can apply to military or government-unique missions the technologies inspired by cutting-edge commercial tech.

So what is to be done to help government with cutting-edge tech?

I asked my source what he would do about this problem if he were newly appointed as CEO to a big government IT contractor. He volunteered two things: "First, I'd establish a small group of my top innovative technology, business and finance people and task them with identifying the major innovative growth market areas, the top commercial companies in each market segment, and a business plan to address how we should position to grow in each. I would also tell each of my major business unit senior managers to do the same for their own business units."

Second, he said, "I would personally visit with each of my company's top 10 customers and ask them what they need in the way of innovation to meet their specific mission needs. I would take this information back to my senior and unit executives, and begin the process of aligning our capabilities with the major innovative needs of my customers and the major growth areas for the future."

Assuming that many cutting-edge technologies will continue to come from Silicon Valley-type commercial firms, are there things the government can do to encourage more such firms otherwise reluctant to do so to sell to the government, other than exhortation. (I am probably more inclined than most to believe that appeals to patriotism are not meaningless and should be pursued as one avenue.)

I also believe that marketing to them about the government's eagerness to work with them can help. But more concrete approaches are also called for. To the extent that the hesitancy of Silicon Valley firms to sell to the government is driven by the negative reality of high costs of marketing to government and high startup costs to learn about the regulations and other peculiarities of how the government does business, there would seem to be a fairly ready solution: Silicon Valley firms can outsource these responsibilities -- most notably marketing to the government and learning about the government's procurement system -- to government contractors. In other words, the Silicon Valley companies can sell to the government as subs rather than primes.

From a number of perspectives, this is not an ideal relationship from the point of view of the Silicon Valley company, but it may often be, all things considered, the optimal one. Of course, such prime-sub relationships between government contractors and Silicon Valley companies already exist; my suggestion, both to government customers eager to get these companies to participate in the government marketplace and to the government contractor primes, is to become proactive about establishing such relationships. At a minimum, this could be a transition stage for the Silicon Valley companies to get their federal feet wet, before graduating to prime status once they have the knowledge to sell directly.

The second problem is high levels of government oversight, in the form of pre-award disclosure of one's costs, and compliance with government cost accounting standards. There is also the possibility of post-award audits, which arise when significant modifications – typically for military use -- are made to the off-the-shelf items (COTS) that the Silicon Valley companies produce. (None of this should apply when the company is selling the government COTS or COTS with small modifications, though the details of when the government imposes one or another form of compliance requirements are complicated and often not clear-cut.)

Compliance with such requirements, when imposed, is not cheap, takes a lot of startup effort, and creates legal and reputational exposure that commercial companies dread.

So one could imagine a solution whereby the Silicon Valley company sold its off-the-shelf products to a government contractor and had that contractor, acting as the prime – which has its own systems in place to comply with such requirements -- do the modifications. The prime would then, in effect, be acting like a COTS systems integrator.

The problem with this solution is that the prime will typically need access to technical information about what is inside the COTS black box in order to perform modifications on it. Yet that is part of the producer's intellectual property, which the producer typically will not want to reveal, including to a prime.

For this reason, producers typically do such modifications themselves, which is fine if they already comply with government oversight requirements. But the whole reason to consider the option of having the prime do the modifications is for situations where the COTS producer does not have the systems to comply with government oversight requirements.

As I understand it from conversations with people familiar with this problem, occasionally primes do undertake modification work on items produced by subs. I was told this is very situation-specific. My suggestion would be for the Silicon Valley companies to understand (again) that fear of sharing intellectual property may make government sales impossible when major modifications are required. Perhaps there are some kinds of modifications that create only minor intellectual property risks or where the opportunities for Silicon Valley companies are large enough to make them willing to trust intellectual property protection to a contract with the prime.

Government customers and government contractor primes should try to get a dialogue started here, based around how important it is for the government to get access to the Silicon Valley technology that would need to be modified.

Again, comments are welcome.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Sep 15, 2016 at 5:55 AM

Rising Stars

Meet 21 early-career leaders who are doing great things in federal IT.


Reader comments

Wed, Oct 19, 2016 Kymm McCabe

Dr K, i am a big fan of yours but I find this series to be disheartening.

First, rather than advocating for ways to make the system actually work in the digital era, it seems that you've added your voice to those advocating ways to skirt it. This line of discourse does not result in a level playing field and does not position innovators to be successful (regardless of where their companies are located). Additionally, the continued rhetoric around innovation in the west and stagnancy in the east is false. There are innovators throughout this great country and the government deserves access to all of them.

It's also interesting that is a movement to convince unwilling players to join rather than embracing companies that have invested or want to invest in the federal space. Companies who profoundly understand (or are open to understanding) our government reassures me that they will consider the delicate balance between driving innovation and doing no harm to government missions that our citizens rely on.

Digital mindset MUST BE married with the public sector ethos or the mercenary "disruption" may cause harm not good.

That's not to say that we don't have incumbency issues and some resistance to change, but as a Californian, I'm sorry to say that not all Innovacion comes from the Silicon Valley and not all "innovation" is appropriate for federal at this time. Just because we can doesn't mean we should.

I suggest that we come back to the concepts embedded in acquisition of the future and focus on what we aspire to be in the contract and community and build towards that for ALL. Then, let the ponies run.

Creating loopholes does not scale. Creating loopholes does not allow for our government to get the best capabilities. Creating loopholes simply allows for no competition, favoritism, and no ethical practices (which I am seeing regularly). I know loopholes is not what you mean to suggest, however, it is in fact being suggested.

As a former government senior executive, an advocate of innovation and taking the digital leap, long time federal industry exec, and collaborator with high-tech innovative firms (from the Valley, New York, Boston, the Triangle, and the Dulles corridor) Some of the other comments about the long time existing practices spelled out as new in the article challenges of practical application in some of the solutions presented in the article also resonated.

Thank you for putting out these thoughts for discussion and inviting comments. Now, lets work together to make this system "hum" in the digital age!

Thu, Oct 6, 2016

Steve, as someone that has been in this business for decades including being an agency CIO and carrying an unlimited warrant with over $1B in outlays yearly in contracts, I would opine that you have suggested a business model that will drive a vast majority of businesses into bankruptcy. You win business by responding to RFPs, ALL parts of the RFPs, not going off on some "innovative" technology excursion that most source selection officials would not even understand. Theoretically a great discussion, practically a non-starter. Thanks you for your interest in National security.

Fri, Sep 23, 2016

There are elements that inhibit innovation in government contracting: 1. Services and Product (COTS) purchases are split across different vehicles. Thus is difficult to propose true innovations and solutions to problems. 2. LPTA mentality. Innovations and Solutions require a true Best Value approach to acquisitions. Too often the split between services and product purchases results in LPTA labor rate bids. The results tend to be suboptimal. Best Value may mean a higher cost today for lower cost/improved performance/customer satisfaction/etc. in the future 3. Government as Integrator. The government must partner with industry, just as industrial firms become integrated trading partners. 4. Contractors should not be afraid of FFP contracts for delivery of expected results; Government must know the incremental outcomes desired and stick to its incremental requirements to ensure vendors deliver. When a vendor shows they cannot deliver they should be quickly removed and replaced 4. Allow for solution pilots and bake-offs. Innovation will impact people, processes, technology and data. Prove enterprise solutions with local pilots. Often the lessons learned will inform the enterprise need

Fri, Sep 16, 2016 Paul Strasser McLean

Steve, Good series. I submit that the arrangement you discussed here between Silicon Valley and Government contractors has been going on for a long time. Mostly the SV companies have a Federal channel which uses SIs and resellers to do as you indicated. There are many examples. The integrations around APIs and other applications/COTS can in many instances allow for the specific needs of Government. That said, we could take it further as you indicate. Also, I suggest that on the above discussion about Government Contractor's internal strategy and innovative ideation, that this could be augmented by associations like ACT-IAC which is already a great example of Government and Industry working together to improve Government mission performance through collaboration and ideation. Today about 400 GC companies are members with all the usual suspects. A recent example is found in the Cyber Security Ideation, which was well received by the Federal CIO. There are others in Cloud, Digital Enablemenht, and Emerging Technology. Each of these and several others have Communities of Interest (COIs) doing just that! See Paul Strasser, President and CEO, PPC

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group