Editor’s note: For more on this topic see the first in this series at: Accelerating Technology For Use In Governments: What can be done now?
Adoption of new technology from outside the USG has been a stated goal of most departments and agencies for some time. The creation of In-Q-Tel (IQT) by pioneers within and outside of the CIA occurred over 20 years ago. Its acceptance and growth, now extending to the entire IC, DOD, and FBI has made it one of the more recognized attempts to adopt emerging technology within the USG. Its expansion now includes allies in the UK and Australia. The concept has been copied and adjusted with formation of the DOD Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), and UK’s National Strategic Investment Fund; two relatively new approaches that have built on and expanded, and perhaps in some cases improved on the In-Q-Tel concept. Other concepts and approaches are being formed.
“DOD said that the new Office of Strategic Capital—or OSC—will help ensure that technologies “such as advanced materials, next-generation biotechnology and quantum science” receive the long-term funding they need “to bridge the gap between the laboratory and full-scale production.”
While these approaches appear to be thriving and expanding, none of these approaches have significantly improved the consistency or speed of adoption, as they all share the same issue. At their core they are “bolted on” to the existing procedural and cultural infrastructure that is the federal acquisition system. Each of these emerging technology approaches have to make the jump from the identification and introduction of emerging technology to adoption within the mission. This is not to say that these organizations have not had success. The impacts on mission from a number of efforts have had a measurable impact, but the rate of adoption is low enough that return on investment in these approaches have been questioned. These efforts are well supported at the Director-level of most USG agencies, and certainly within the US Congress, their support at the middle management level is much lower, as they are frequently seen as taking resources that could be used to achieve objectives with more traditional acquisition approaches.
“While a long-ordered process seemingly made sense in the mid-1960s when the government adopted the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), it no longer does. The pace of technological development has rapidly increased since the 1960s. The government is no longer the largest investor in Research and Development (R&D) and thus does not control the pace of technological development in key defense technologies.”
As stated in the first article in this series, legal and policy changes are required to fully solve these issues, but the focus of this discussion remains on what can be done now. Continuing the focus on speed of adoption and risk management issues from a USG perspective, and identifying strategies that can be implemented now, by those with the authority and will to do so.
USG Speed of Adoption Perspective
Unlike commercial emerging technology adoption, USG adoption is generally not driven by the potential impact of emerging technology on a current mission. The USG will avoid risk by looking for solutions and commercial partners that are known, and have a demonstrated record of success. In addition, structurally and culturally the USG, does not look outside itself for emerging technology to meet a current mission need. A “textbook” view: Mission needs are identified and communicated by mission operators to the acquisition organization, who then begins the requirements process, and reviews current available technology, then initiates the acquisition process. At the end of that process the acquisition organization delivers a new system that “hopefully” meets the need of the mission operators. Another view of USG adoption is driven by an unforeseen catastrophe or urgent “lives at stake need.” This type of adoption is driven more often by those organizations currently performing the mission, and tends to move with both greater speed and acceptance of risk, especially in the management of the acquisition process, but also in terms of the types of technical solutions considered. The critical consideration for the USG is mission need, based on the current means for accomplishing a mission. This approach, with the exception of those activities described above (IQT, DIU, etc.) forecloses review of emerging technology which might completely change not only the tools used to accomplish a mission, but might also fundamentally change how current missions are supported or accomplished. This structure and culture drastically slows adoption of emerging or in some cases widely accepted technology by the USG.
USG Speed of Adoption Strategies
IQT, DIU and other similar programs are bolted on to the federal architecture to allow emerging technology to “seep” into the current structure and culture. These need to be more disruptive of the status-quo, and a deliberate aspect of the mission needs process. Part of the magic of IQT and DIU is helping startups mesh with the federal machinery, this concept needs to be re-emphasized and expanded. Expecting new companies in the emerging technology space to understand the FAR, is unrealistic. Dedicated resources should be tasked with helping small and mid-sized companies learn how to overcome the process. Program managers and operators need to proactively build pathways for emerging technology solutions to become a normalized aspect of the federal acquisition process. Fully incorporate the emerging technology programs (IQT, DIU) into the requirements and market survey process, and set aside resources specifically for adoption. Incentivize the discovery and integration of commercial or academic emerging technology and products, by providing both the means and the time to search and discover new technologies by operators and technical evaluators. Ensure an emerging/outside/new technical approach has been considered and evaluated for every review of a Program of Record. Leverage and consider alternative contracting methodology that promotes shared risks and collaboration with emerging technology providers. Encourage co-location and engagement between mission operators and technology evaluators, bring mission operators into emerging technology programs, to include providing full time sponsorship of any potential adoption. Invite participation by mission operators in the review of emerging technology, encourage consideration of new methods for mission accomplishment. Create and improve infrastructure, places, people, process to permit the evaluation and demonstration of new technology as is, in an unclassified environment.
USG Risk Management Perspective
USG agencies have failed to emphasize risk management, or even to value it, opting instead for risk avoidance. The USG risk perspective for emerging technology adoption includes; risk to a specific mission, security and counterintelligence (CI) risk, and risks related to the acquisition process. While each of these areas present true risk that requires both identification and mitigation, each of these also provides an opportunity to leverage risk avoidance to slow or stop the adoption of emerging technology. One critical area of risk avoidance, is an acceptance of “established conventions, norms, or rules of thumb” which rejects a new technical approach as it represents a means of accomplishment that has previously been proven to cause risk. This type of approach frequently does not permit a fresh look at risk stemming from a new approach to mission based on new technology. Risk avoidance via security classification is also an issue for emerging technology. The inability to communicate with companies and individuals about technical requirements of a specific mission due to classification or clearance requirements, is another limiting factor in adoption. Merely keeping all information about a program or mission classified avoids the risk of careful consideration about what aspects of the mission or the technical approach truly require classification. Acquisition risk avoidance has many factors, certainly obtaining budget authority, but also in commitment of resources to service the acquisition process. Risk avoidance has become so pervasive it has replaced true risk management as the means of dealing with risk within the USG, and is significantly impacting emerging technology adoption.
USG Risk Management Strategies
Adopt and promote a strategy of risk management at all levels of organization. Teach the concepts and encourage the practice of risk management. Recognize and call out instances of risk avoidance, encourage the use of questions that start with “why.” Consider risk mitigation strategies specific to the application of new technology, and how that technology will be used for a specific mission. Resist and question use of blanket, standard, or prescriptive approaches to security and CI. Be willing and able to provide an unclassified description of the mission need to outside entities. Develop and consider what aspects of the mission truly reveal sources or methods. If a method is related strictly to “known science” and can be truly separated from the specifics of a mission, then it is not a method that requires protection. Create unclassified descriptions of mission and technical requirements, or at the very least descriptions that can be shared at a lower level of classification. Create a risk management program specifically for the transition of technology, including a review of the best methods of acquisition for a particular emerging technology. Consider the ability of a new commercial entity to engage with the acquisition system, and what could improve their success. Develop and create infrastructure, people, facilities and technology that permits risk reduction or risk mitigation activities to be accomplished by USG or commercial entities together or independently.
USG Recommendations to improve Emerging Technology Adoption
- Fully incorporate emerging technology programs (IQT, DIU, others) into the acquisition process.
- Require Programs of Record to evaluate emerging technology solutions to current and future mission needs assessments at major milestones.
- Engage in the demonstration of emerging technology solutions, new approaches to mission accomplishment.
- Leverage and create unique acquisition methods to share risk with emerging tech companies.
- Create opportunities for trials and pilots of emerging technology in mission applications.
- Embrace, teach, and train the concept of Risk Management. Eliminate risk avoidance.
- Resist blanket or dated approaches to security and CI assessments, start with new assessments, mitigate specific risks.
- Develop a true understanding of sources and methods that require protection, do not classify “physics”.
- Create and manage a risk management plan specifically for adoption of emerging technology systems or tools.
- Create and build infrastructure for unclassified demonstration, and risk reduction/mitigation actions for emerging technology.
“Risk-aversion and strict adherence to the status quo are self-inflicted mortal wounds that run in parallel to a glut of advocacy for change and innovation from within the public sector. We see and hear it everywhere, so how do we tip the balance of power in its favour, and rediscover this daring and entrepreneurial outlook without the forcing function of an external geopolitical crisis? How can we make it organic and instinctive?”
The author of the article above from Allied Partners UK, provides both an outstanding summary of the issues presented, along with a great example from history. Would the outcome of the Battle of Britain been altered if the RAF did not have the Spitfire in its operational inventory? A great debate question that fortunately the UK did not have to consider during or after the battle. What is the next Spitfire? I suspect there are an infinite number of answers to that question. What can we do now to make that a question that can be pondered without impact, after we win our next battle? Note that in the UK example, it was not the government that stepped in to “fix” the problem, it was a few people with the means, the will, and the vision to know what was important, and found a way to bring the technology into the system. Welcome comments.