In a rapidly changing environment, expecting overworked acquisition staff to become experts in every emerging technology is unrealistic.
Using market research to find readily available commercial solutions will keep the government ahead of the curve and save billions of dollars. Part 10 of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) encourages the latest market research methods so that government agencies unearth the right private sector tech, but it often gets ignored or seen as just a box to check in procurement.
Part 10 states: "On an ongoing basis, take advantage (to the maximum extent practicable) of commercially available market research methods in order to effectively identify the capabilities of small businesses and new entrants into federal contracting that are available in the marketplace."
So, how can the government evolve its market research to find the right technology?
Let program offices lead market research.
Conducting market research for tech, like artificial intelligence (AI), is a bit like opening Pandora's box. The market is highly segmented into categories — AI for cyber, drones, or healthcare — and has the power to overwhelm even the most astute researcher, with hundreds of niche companies on the rise, each defining a slightly different niche in the market.
In this rapidly changing tech environment, expecting overworked acquisition staff to become experts in things like artificial intelligence is unrealistic. Yet, when we speak to federal leaders in our innovation training programs at Dcode, we often ask, "Who runs your market research?" only to find out that it falls to acquisition and contracting staff.
When a program office needs a tool, they know why, what they want, and how it works. While market research is time consuming for program offices, assigning it to acquisitions staff means they'll most likely search one of two ways: through contracting vehicles and catalogues already available to the government (which often don't include the most innovative solutions) or running web searches and turning up thousands of results.
If the program office owns the market research, they can get the tech tools they need faster with no superfluous steps bottlenecking the process.
Now that the program offices know that they need to lead market research — how can they do that effectively?
Research like an investor.
Investors, like any entity that provides capital with the expectation of a financial return, are market research pros. To succeed, investors must research tech companies extensively before deciding to back them.
Investors look at the company's other customers, what other deals are happening, and who else is investing — it's a good sign if the product you are considering has large-scale customers and top-tier investors. Investors know the tech landscape changes so quickly that even the Forresters and Gartners of the world have to evolve their quadrants constantly to include new tech focuses, so they stay up-to-date through different channels. Sites like Crunchbase will provide detail on capital, like who the investors are and when the company last raised funding. ProRata will show market trends and daily deals.
To truly think like an investor, you have to become comfortable with risk. Risk aversion can leave you stuck in a rut. To break out, consider how emerging tech can meet your needs, rather than choosing a solution and working backwards to solve the problem.
Engage with tech companies.
While agencies can't show preferential treatment, we often hear that snowball into: "I'm not allowed to speak to any vendors," which is untrue. In fact, the government encourages strengthened engagement with the private sector and nontraditional vendors, and we know that engagement is critical for advancing market research.
Government agencies should develop thoughtful strategies for engaging with emerging tech and involve legal and acquisitions teams from day one to avoid boxing themselves into the same, outdated solutions.
The beginning of the process is the best time to have these conversations internally and involve tech companies. Speak to nontraditional vendors and learn from other government teams who have already overcome internal barriers based on misconceived notions. If you receive internal push back, never stop asking why.
Market like an accelerator.
Research is an important first step to uncovering the emerging tech solutions you need, but it's a fruitless endeavor unless tech companies can find your request for information (RFI). The government has to be forward-thinking and make sure these technologies are responding to RFIs. To make sure you are reaching the right companies, market like an accelerator (a program designed to help start-up companies scale).
To make sure they're reaching the right networks, accelerators leverage their communities with tech connections for referrals and introductions. Stay in touch with reputable VCs that have invested in emerging tech areas and industry partners that are familiar with private sector solutions.
To get in touch with companies, go to where they are. Social media platforms or sites like Reddit can offer more direct links to the tech companies you want to reach. Read what they read, listen to what they listen to, and maybe hit a few of their events along the way. Think Wired and TechCrunch, podcasts and Web Summit.
Don't go solo.
Feel alone in the push to innovate? We can assure you plenty of government leaders are in it with you — we work with them all the time. AFWERX, DIU, USAID, and others are searching for tech that can support government missions. Events like HHS Innovation Day provide opportunities for federal employees to convene and learn from each other.
These agencies have broken out of the government bubble and become part of broader innovation ecosystems, where organizations can help you figure out whether a commercial tech solution will be a good fit.
Whether you work within an innovation hub or a parent agency, the good news is that plenty of people are ready to push the envelope. Find those people eager to work with you on bringing commercial technology into the government, whether that's in their job descriptions or not.
Step outside your comfort zone when it comes to researching emerging tech. Be aware that inside the beltway, market research has been done the same way for a long time, and you may have to ruffle some feathers to push for more innovative approaches. Keeping up with the changes requires a leap of faith, and a lot of market research.