Vendors getting mixed messages on cybersecurity

The sometimes-confusing guidance on acquisition and supply line protection rules is leaving some potential industry partners flummoxed.

government industry dialog

Initiatives to help industry and government codify compatible cybersecurity requirements and capabilities are yielding some results, but acquisition experts say those plans have clouded federal cybersecurity acquisition efforts.

Participants in a May 22 panel, convened by the Coalition for Government Procurement in Tysons Corner, Va., to discuss how to navigate emerging cybersecurity acquisition rules, cited the National Institute of Standards and Technology's cyber framework and the joint "Improving Cybersecurity and Resilience through Acquisition" report issued by General Services Administration and the Pentagon, as two examples of useful programs.

But with sometimes-uneven acquisition and supply line protection rules across agencies, "the government isn't speaking with one voice" on cybersecurity acquisition, said Tom Barletta, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson who concentrates on federal acquisition law.

NIST's framework, meant to give critical infrastructure owners in 16 industries -- including banks, power and water utilities, and communications companies -- a more uniform approach to their cybersecurity practices was spurred by a February executive order. GSA's and the Defense Department's acquisition plans were submitted to the president as the order was rolled out.

David Bodenheimer, a partner at Crowell & Moring, said that as those rules and plans sink in, federal acquisition of cybersecurity IT can require expert navigation using the Federal Acquisition Regulation, Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement, the GSA Manual and other sources. "There are 12, 15, 20 different places to look" for guidance, he said.

Federal agencies are trying to simplify those rules for future contracts, said Richard Blake, business management specialist with GSA's Federal Acquisition Service Enterprise GWAC Center, particularly under the Alliant II and Alliant II Small Business government wide acquisition contracts. Those next-generation contracting vehicles look to provide comprehensive packages of IT solutions through customizable hardware, software and services.

Blake said his agency is looking for input from the private sector on how best to harmonize cybersecurity requirements in government contracts and the supply chain.

Emile Monette, senior advisor for cybersecurity at GSA's Office of Mission Assurance, said the GSA/DoD report "represents the best thoughts from government and the private sector" on how to proceed with cybersecurity-sensitive acquisitions. Given the sensitive nature of cybersecurity technology, Monette said, some vendors might be reluctant to provide official comments on the subject. He said he understood those concerns and urged companies to send their comments to him directly if they were concerned about their sensitivity.

Given that cyber threats are ever-changing, federal acquisition rules and regulations will continue to adapt to them, complicating and slowing the acquisition process, according to Don Johnson, who works in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration.

That thought was echoed by Roger Waldron, president of the Coalition for Government Procurement.

"This struggle will continue as the threat evolves," Waldron told FCW in an interview at the conference. CGP will continue its efforts to keep members up to date on regulations, Waldron said, but he urged federal contracting officers and program managers to maintain flexibility in their processes to accommodate that threat evolution.

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