Innovation, rapid deployment, tailoring and modular contracts – these are just a few of the buzzwords in defense acquisition today. And with policies – and priorities – ever changing, it takes effort to keep up with the pace of progress.
ClearanceJobs recently sat down with three acquisition professionals with MITRE, a public interest company who works with government, industry, and academia to find innovative solutions to problems. On ClearedCast, we discussed the current contracting challenges and areas of opportunity, and how MITRE is helping bring new players to the contracting table.
“One of the things that we’re seeing now is a heightened interest and motivation by the senior leadership at the OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] levels and the Secretary of Defense levels,” said Debra Zides, a subject matter expert in acquisition policy with MITRE. “Some of the new statutes that have come out since 2016 from Congress have given more authorities, and more room for the Department of Defense to acquire smarter and faster, leveraging rapid prototyping and rapid fielding.”
Policies are changing to reflect the differences in what’s being acquired – from heavy systems to software.
“I think the three main thrusts of a lot of the changes we’re seeing are a focus on speed, adaptability, and critical thinking,” said Dan Ward, whose unofficial title at MITRE is ‘innovation catalyst.’ “In practice, what that means is delegating decision authority down to a level that supports rapid action…so, we’re seeing much more of an emphasis on experimentation and iteration as opposed to previous years where the focus has been more on visibility, control, and ‘you’ve got to get it right on the first try.’”
The government is moving away from seeking perfect solutions, and is increasingly interested in the possible solution. “We’re seeing the culture moving more towards small, iterative, incremental and experimental – and move forward based on actual data…rather than hypothetical paperwork exercises.”
Another area where the government is starting to open up is in the area of intellectual property.
“A few years back intellectual property was really based more on the government’s needs, and we didn’t have a lot of startups out there who were really changing the technological game for us,” said Lorna Tedder, acquisition subject matter expert with a background in contracting. “Now we are seeing more startups, more small businesses, more non-traditional defense contractors who have these great ideas.”
Opening up the IP side of things is allowing more small businesses and start-ups to play with the government, noted Tedder.
When it comes to acquisition today, tailoring is one of the major issues being codified and reinforced in policy.
“You don’t acquire and field software the same way you would an airplane,” said Zides.
But when you do acquire an airplane, you’re likely also acquiring software – so today’s acquisition policy is working to provide a flexible framework, where a tailored approach can allow you can tailor the same contract vehicle to find the right solution.
“I think we always value critical thinking, but now we’re talking about critical thinking with speed, because there’s more of an emphasis on speed and adaptability and prototyping,” said Ward.
How MITRE is Helping Defense Acquisition Innovate
MITRE has a unique mission in the federal contracting space, managing federally funded research facilities. A big part of its role is helping the government rethink the traditional vendors, and bring innovation across the government space.
“MITRE has a bridging innovation team that basically is out there looking at all of the nontraditional actors,” said Zides. “We’re trying to grab that innovation, understand it, and see how we can bring some of those users in, and not just the Department of Defense.”
Other Transaction Authorities are not new – at all – but they’re also being used to cut through bureaucracy and bring new investors and commercial companies into the government contracting space. Creative contracts can be built to deliver the solutions the government needs, and with the right providers.
“What’s going on right now in contracting is we’re looking at a once in a generation change in how we do business and in the culture,” said Tedder. “And we’d like to get at least two generations ahead when we’re thinking long term planning, so that we’re not constantly in an urgency to get ahead and stay ahead of our adversaries.”
Another area where the policy hasn’t actually changed but implementation is being more broadly applied is with modular contracting.
“Ironically FAR 39 already says – and for years has said – modular contracting is the preferred contracting approach…you can, could and should do modular contracting for a large number of different domains of technology,” said Ward. “And what that means is instead of finding one massive monolithic contract, you know, one king to rule them all type thing, instead, use a larger number of smaller contracts that are each connected and interrelated.”
Ward says those smaller contracts are often easier to manage and adjust – and the benefits are outlined in FAR part 39.
“It’s a glorious thing when federal acquisition policy not only tells you what to do but then explains why this is a good thing to do it and it just lays it out very clearly,” said Ward.
An area MITRE continually emphasizes is the benefits of being abreast of government contracting policy – and that’s why it maintains or points to a variety of government and non-government resources. Acquisition policy isn’t just important for contracting officers – but for program managers, recruiters, and business managers who want to help their companies succeed in the contracting space.
Here are a few of the resources MITRE highlights:
OSD Adaptive Acquisition Framework (AAF) on Defense Acquisition University (DAU):
MITRE Acquisition in the Digital Age (AiDA):
MITRE Innovation Toolkit (ITK):
MITRE Bridging Innovation (BI):
The innovation accelerators:
More information about our guests:
Dan is Senior Principal Systems Engineer, Defense Acquisition & Policy Department in MITRE’s National Security Engineering Center (NSEC), a a federally funded R&D center sponsored by the Department of Defense and operated within the MITRE National Security organization. Dan is an innovation catalyst at MITRE. He previously served for more than 20 years as an officer in the US Air Force, where he specialized in leading small, high-speed, low-cost technology development programs. Dan is the author of three books: LIFT (2019), The Simplicity Cycle (2015) and F.I.R.E. (2014). He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, a master’s degree in engineering management and a master’s degree in systems engineering.
Lorna is Principal Program Manager and Agile Acquisition Subject Matter Expert, Defense Acquisition & Policy Department in MITRE’s National Security Engineering Center (NSEC) with a special emphasis on contracting strategies. The NSEC is a federally funded R&D center sponsored by the Department of Defense and operated within the MITRE National Security organization. She has 31 years of experience in Federal Acquisition and Contracting. Prior to joining MITRE, Lorna served as the Chief of Contracting for the Rapid Acquisition Cell at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. She is known for leveraging innovative contracting tools as a Contracting Officer and procurement (policy) analyst to expedite program activities and enable partnerships with non-traditional industry partners. As a thought leader in innovative contracting, Lorna is continually publishing articles and papers on best practices and user stories to enable acquisition practitioners to deliver at the speed of relevance.
Debra is Principal Program Manager and Agile Acquisition Subject Matter Expert, Defense Acquisition & Policy Department in MITRE’s National Security Engineering Center (NSEC), a federally funded R&D center sponsored by the Department of Defense and operated within the MITRE National Security organization. Prior to joining MITRE, Debra served 20 years active duty in the Air Force and was also a Department of Defense Federal employee leading the Air Force’s counter small drone urgent operational need portfolio. Today, she applies her leadership and acquisition deep expertise to enable government agencies to incorporate innovation and accelerate the fielding of capabilities to end users. Debra received her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She also holds a master’s degree in organizational management from George Washington University, a master’s degree in gastronomy from Boston University, and a master’s degree in military operations from Air University. She is DAWIA Level III certified in program management and PMP certified.
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