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Participation low in DoD program tapping industry expertise

Jul. 18, 2012 - 01:36PM   |  
By NICOLE BLAKE JOHNSON   |   Comments
Debra S. Del Mar, Managing Partner, Vanguard Advisors, LLC, is the only private-sector person who has participated in a Defense Department job exchange program.
Debra S. Del Mar, Managing Partner, Vanguard Advisors, LLC, is the only private-sector person who has participated in a Defense Department job exchange program. (Staff)

When the Defense Department launched a program last July enabling tech company executives to work up to a year for the department in an effort to swap expertise and perspectives, Debra Del Mar jumped at the chance.

For Del Mar, owner and managing partner of Vienna, Va.-based Vanguard Advisors LLC, the decision to offer DoD free expertise was as much a strategic one as it was an opportunity to test the waters of public service.

“I wanted to learn how the building [Pentagon] operated, how decisions were made [and] how programs are justified,” Del Mar said.

With her senior partner’s blessing, Del Mar took a six-month sabbatical from her small consulting firm in October to analyze DoD’s enterprise resource planning issues and share with senior leaders the risks and challenges of using these systems to improve accounting and other business operations.

DoD had hoped to bring on more industry experts like Del Mar to tackle data center consolidation, cybersecurity, mobility and other challenges. Department officials envisioned up to 10 civilian and industry employees participating in the program simultaneously, with the goal of exchanging skills and ensuring DoD keeps pace with changes in technology.

However, so far, Del Mar is the only industry executive to have participated in the pilot program. In a final rule published last month, DoD said it expected to have two additional candidates on board by June 30. All assignments with the private sector must start before Sept. 30, 2013.

“There are a number of reasons that the participation has been low thus far — such as the private sector having personnel with the required security clearances for specific assignments, and the economy — resulting in companies not being able to afford to have a person on detail to DoD,” spokeswoman Lt. Col. April Cunningham said in a statement. “Also, personnel vacancies within [the Defense Department’s office of the chief information officer] restricted our ability to reach out to industry and DoD organizations to facilitate personnel placements.”

DoD has not yet detailed any civilian employees to the private sector under the program.

ViWo Inc., a Los-Angeles-based company that primarily provides Google cloud solutions, is the only company looking for a DoD expert. “They can come and learn from us what is going on firsthand in the cloud space and report back to DoD,” said ViWo founder Crisantos Hajibrahim.

Limited participation

Limited participation in the program is a missed opportunity for DoD to gain industry insight about new technologies and efficient business processes, said Deniece Peterson, a federal industry analyst for market research firm Deltek. This is one way for DoD to gain expertise without contracting out for it.

But large companies with DoD contracts want to know how the program will benefit them, she said. Will an employee’s involvement in the program affect DoD contract opportunities for companies? These issues have to be clearly explained to industry, she said.

The program could help smaller companies better understand how DoD operates, but the experts DoD is looking for are the experts small companies can’t afford to do without for months or a year, she said. “It’s a Catch-22.”

DoD is looking for industry experts to:

• Share cybersecurity techniques and procedures for developing and implementing a department-wide cyber strategy.

• Help coordinate DoD’s data center consolidation efforts.

• Help create a roadmap for adopting cloud computing solutions.

• Investigate government cloud computing offerings to determine how DoD can use them.

Most assignments require industry employees to have a secret or top secret clearance, and companies must continue paying their employees’ salaries.

“One of the challenges is that there is not always a clear ROI [return on investment] for industry,” said Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president of national security and procurement policy at TechAmerica.

Past attempts by DoD to exchange employees with the private sector also have lacked participation, Hodgkins said. There is a misperception that government workers will slant competitions once they return from a detail with industry, and that involvement in the program would give certain companies a contracting advantage.

“We would love to find a way to overcome those misperceptions,” he said. “Industry is prepared to accept folks, but one of the elements is the government has to want to come.”

Industry would gain a better understanding of the business of government, and government could better understand how industry chooses which contracts to bid on and the effect when government delays contracts or issues requests for proposals with little time for competing vendors to respond, Hodgkins said.

Del Mar’s experience

Although Del Mar doesn’t contract with DoD directly, she had to sign nondisclosure forms to protect government information. Del Mar said she agrees with such restrictions, but that they can be viewed as onerous for companies with a large presence in DoD that expect to benefit from greater insight.

At DoD, Del Mar made suggestions to use systems modernization to accelerate DoD’s goal to achieve audit readiness of its Statement of Budgetary Resources by 2014. That means DoD plans to be ready to undergo an audit by that time.

Del Mar said some of her suggestions were bolder than others, such as immediately reducing the number of business legacy and other redundant systems. But various barriers stood in the way of her suggestions being viable.

For instance, the systems she proposed consolidating each had numerous advocates arguing on their behalf. Also, they all had funding tied to them and costs and programmatic implications were attached to her proposals to make changes.

“People accepted what I was saying as an ultimate goal, but it’s difficult,” she said. Del Mar said her overall experience was positive and will help her better advise DoD contractors. The exchange program has also given her a better understanding of how industry should approach government to present ideas, help refine requirements and propose solutions.

Her advice to potential and current DoD contractors: “Now is the time to really help the department do things in a much more standard and simplified way.”

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