When the Department of Defense needed the ability to push the technological envelope they developed the Advanced Research Projects Agency. Recognizing the value in that approach – about fifty years later – the intelligence community formed its own advanced R&D capability. The community nurtures the development of advanced IT solutions through its venture capital firm In-Q-Tel. All well and good for major technology solutions, but what good is all this to your average general-schedule working stiffs who are just trying to get their little $2, $5, $10 million dollar projects off the ground?
It breaks down like this: you identify a need; you successfully argue for money to fund a solution; you put out an RFP; you sort through all the responses; you pick the firm that appears to offer the best value; they go to work; the project is completed. A nice theoretical construct, but one that can clash hard with reality; the losing firm(s) can challenge your decision; the winning firm throws low-end talent at the project to boost their bottom line; the technology applied is too bleeding-edge. Whatever the issue, your average GS-13 can’t keep on top of it all; when he’s not playing COTR he’s got his real job to do.
So he turns to In-Q-Tel and hears: “don’t call us, we’ll call you.” An email to IARPA brings a more verbose but equally dismissive response. Even if one of these groups decided to help you out, from no less than the “godfather” of DARPA IT comes the revelation that “We are becoming incapable of handling a technology challenge of any major magnitude.” Debacles like the FBI’s Virtual Case File and a good deal of what happens at the NSA support that assertion.
Where is the decision-assisting resource for defense- and intelligence-specific applications of technology? Where is the Burton or Gartner for the government’s spooks, grunts, scholars and geeks? Undeserved as it is, is this too small a niche to bother filling? In light of the fact that the Pentagon is going to require prototyping to help reduce the probability that still more defense projects will not become billion-dollar money sinks, the answer would appear to be: “No.”