How brokers can help buy tomorrow’s technology today

Federal program managers are awash in data, but lack information. Experts and innovators in the acquisition community can help bridge the gap.

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Purchasing technology and capability for the government is an increasingly overwhelming and lonely task. In many ways, it’s like buying a new house -- only much harder.

You can go it alone, relying on luck and online data. Or you can seek the help of a real estate broker, a highly trained professional who specializes in matching home buyers’ needs, the intricacies of the local market, the right deal and the right price, while also ensuring you stay within the rules.

With Zillow, Redfin, Realtor.com, Trulia and other online databases, we are awash in more information than ever about housing markets. Yet most of us still engage an experienced agent to translate our needs and wants, quirks and dreams into a special residence that fits our exact requirements. Even if we don’t know exactly what the requirements are until we see that perfect house.

We’re busy working all day to earn money to afford our homes, so we don’t have time to learn the nuances of the mini-markets determined by neighborhood, type of house, and history and trends in our target location. We want a guide with an ear to the ground and contacts in the area who knows not only what’s for sale now, but what’s on the cusp of becoming available. Who can shepherd us through shopping for a mortgage, a housing inspector, a closing agent, and set up showings and accompany us to open houses. Who can help us follow the law, negotiate a fair price, neither leave money on the table nor be unpleasantly surprised when we move in.

Home and government buyers share three fundamental questions: What should we buy? How Should we buy it? And how can we guarantee that we get what we paid for?

Like home buyers, federal program managers are awash in data, but lack information. They know what they need to accomplish, but not exactly how nor the full extent or shape of the market’s current and future capability to provide it.

This problem has become critically vexing for the Department of Defense as it attempts to shift from decades of counterinsurgency to gearing up for potential conventional warfare with near-peer adversaries that used those same decades for dramatic technological evolution. The resulting pressure for innovation at speed and continuous adaptation has spawned an industry of innovation-scouting and -procurement brokers.

Inside the department, the Defense Innovation Unit, the Defense Digital Service, the Army’s new Futures Command, and an array of rapid capabilities offices have sprung up or expanded. Dozens of consortia, partnership intermediary agreement organizations, such as the DEFENSEWERX hubs, SOFWERX, AFWERX, MGMWERX, and other purchasing facilitators also are lining up, one foot inside and one outside the military. They are helping identify nontraditional and traditional defense contractors for projects in emerging technologies, microelectronics, augmenting the Global Positioning System, information warfare, improved business systems, quantum technologies for electronic warfare and more.

Likewise, civilian agencies have recognized the need to deliver missions faster, more digitally, and grounded in data-based evidence of effectiveness. They, too, are relying on help from procurement innovation labs, greater engagement with suppliers, better use of regulatory flexibility, and digital procurement specialists.

Recognizing government’s lack of experience with the markets for tomorrow’s technologies, as well as the resistance of inventors and startups to the byzantine federal buying process, Congress has considerably relaxed the procurement rules perceived by industry as excessively costly and limiting. For DOD, other transaction authority to buy outside the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) began as a pilot program reserved for procuring research and then R&D prototypes. Since then, legislators have made it permanent, increased its ceiling to $500 million, expanded it to include follow-on production of successful prototypes, and focused it on attracting nontraditional vendors to work with the department.

DOD also won interim authority to test rapid prototyping and fielding for middle-tier acquisitions. In exchange for getting prototypes built using innovative technology within five years or using proven technology to begin production of systems within six months and complete fielding within five years, defense programs can use a streamlined requirements, budget and procurement process.

In addition, the Hill provided the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the General Services Administration a chance to test a streamlined, non-FAR purchasing approach for innovative commercial items. The commercial solutions opening includes stripped-down solicitations, fast-track selection of winning bidders, simplified evaluations of solutions and contract administration, and willingness to let vendors retain intellectual property rights. GSA is selling its CSO capability to other agencies, as well. Challenges, prizes and public-private partnerships all enable new access to markets with broader appeal to prospective suppliers.

Risk-averse programs and contracting professionals are naturally suspicious of procurement reforms. The level of urgency for innovation is new. Training and communication about regulatory relaxation have yet to take hold.

So, government’s version of real estate brokers play a necessary, even vital, role in rapidly providing intelligence about new markets, guiding buyers to best practices for attracting and cutting deals with nontraditional sellers, and matching needs with novel solutions.

Long experience has taught me that innovating in federal acquisition to buy tomorrow’s technology and capabilities today requires niche service providers with deep knowledge of their government clients, well-honed skill in crafting problem statements and performance objectives, an investment in market and supplier intelligence-gathering, the ability to reach and cultivate innovators, and expertise in the many new means of buying from them. Most important, we who would blaze this new trail with the government must have an unerring, unflagging focus on improving our clients’ capability to meet and exceed their mission requirements.

Some of the new entrants to the fast-growing and not yet mature world of technology innovation scouting and market-making will flourish as acquisition continues to morph along with government’s need to find and engage with the country’s absolute best providers. Others will drop off for lack of delivery or as the environment shifts shape yet again. Like the best home-buying brokers, survivors must be agile and adapt to ever-changing rules, business ecosystems and exponentially evolving technologies to assist our government partners in achieving mission outcomes via markets.

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