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?
Not much.

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.”

10 thoughts on “Forrester for Uncle Sam?

  1. Interesting. It’s just the opposite in the software industry (at least, the big guys). Contractors either get the grunt work, or extremely specialized work, but they’re definitely viewed as a step below employees.

  2. This is actually a problem endemic to every agency that I am aware of: the mistaken belief that no one on staff has any ideas worth considering. It applies in IT environments as well as others. After all, if you’re so smart, how come you’re working here?
    The solution is always to call in “experts” who spend a lot of time talking to everyone and gathering up their good ideas. They then brief management on all the good ideas (they might throw in some “best practices” if applicable) they just mined from the workforce. Thrilled that their cunning plan has worked out so well, management hires the consultants to try and implement the ideas.
    Points missed: a) the ideas were free for the asking/offering and b) implementation via comp time or credit hours is a lot cheaper than consultant fees.
    The end result is . . . well, many things, including; a workforce demoralized by the process and their half-witted bosses and who are now stuck managing contractors who are doing what they want to be doing themselves. The employees see the only way to do stuff they want to do is bail for the contractor.
    This is how self-licking ice cream cones are made.

  3. One of the things that was going around NSA at the time I took the VSI exit was that the programmers and other computer types were complaining about getting the boring work while all the sexy stuff was outsourced to contractors.
    It was definitely taking it’s toll on their morale.

  4. Michael wrote: “TB and ADVISE (and VCF, etc.) were all mondo contractor efforts.”
    Good point. In fact, as I typed my earlier comment, a part of me was thinking that I should call out the large contractors like Lockheed, Raytheon, etc., that work on so many of these debacles. Instead, we need to bring in small software shops that keep kicking the big guys’ collective asses.

  5. TB and ADVISE (and VCF, etc.) were all mondo contractor efforts. Often they are mondo multi-contractor efforts. Not necessarily that contractors can’t get it done, but absent STRONG oversight and mgt from the gov’t side, anything has the potential to become a debacle.

  6. For some perspective, remember the U2 program went from conception to operational flight over Moscow in less than 2 years. That’d require an act of god now.

  7. Yeah, Trailblazer is a big one. DHS’ ADVISE program was shut down after $41 million, which seems cheap in comparison, but is still a ridiculous waste of money.
    This is one of the reasons why I support the concept of outsourcing – with reservations. Some things private industry does better – hands-down. One of them is technology development and application, and particularly “rapid” development and application, which we really need right now.

  8. Regarding the Trailblazer article…
    The joke in the 204th MI Bn was that (then)LTC Alexander never saw a technology product he didn’t like – quiet words were spoken about his budget juggling skills in order to acquire such products as well. We had lots of toys to play with during that era. Some of them were still around when I briefly returned to active duty in ’03, although with a different unit.
    Nonetheless, he was a very good Battalion Commander – one of those guys you’d be happy to follow anywhere. He probably doesn’t deserve the plate he was handed at NSA, but I suspect he was handed it because people believe he’s the person most likely to clean it. A David Paetraus of the SIGINT world, as it were.
    As is, it looks more and more like I hit the silk on my active Army career at Ft. Meade at the right time.

  9. Tell me about it! I have 18 months invested in exploring each of the options you list, and a couple that you didn’t.
    Just a few days ago I found an STTR topic that’s perfect for my start-up company. Next stop is finding a university to partner with, and then make friends with the technical contact. Submission by Mar 19 and then wait for 90 – 120 days to hear back. Then 6 months for Phase 1 and 12 months for Phase 2. By then, 2 years from now, the program will BEGIN to be implemented. How depressing is that? And not from a monetary point of view, but from knowing that it could all be done so much faster via a VC process.
    I think there’s a niche for a VC firm that is willing to focus on National Security start-ups. Hmmm, more to ponder.

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