Marc Pearl is president and CEO of the Homeland Security & Defense Business Council.
In Jeh Johnson’s first major speech since taking over the job as our nation’s fourth DHS Secretary, he said: “A cliché too often used is that we are in a ‘time of transition,’ The Department of Homeland Security must always be in a time of transition.”
While the secretary was referring to the department’s ability to adapt to evolving threats and hazards, I feel that he should use this time of leadership transition to examine the relationships that DHS has with industry. Throughout his address, the secretary stressed the need for greater outreach to and more trusting relationships with the private sector. Most leaders across government profess the importance of developing such relationships, but all too often this outreach refers only to either the general business community who are urged to ‘say something if they see something’ or to the businesses that are responsible for securing our nation’s critical infrastructure.
A third and equally important component of the private sector – often ignored in the equation – are the companies that are in the business of providing government with specialized technologies, products, and services. These companies are more than just the proverbial “contractors,” they are the government’s “solution providers.”
DHS spends billions annually on contracts for goods and services. Particularly in the current budget environment, Secretary Johnson needs to recognize that building stronger relationships with this segment of the business community is a necessary step in maximizing the effectiveness and efficiency of the agency. Promoting earlier, frequent, and more substantive engagement between DHS and industry well in advance of the formal contracting process would create opportunities to identify and eliminate inefficiencies, waste, and unnecessary duplications of effort. This would ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent more wisely and could assist with the secretary’s stated desire of winning the public’s approval and confidence in their work.
When the “solution-providing” part of industry is included in early discussions, such as during the strategic planning stages when potential threats and vulnerabilities are assessed, companies then have a roadmap for the government’s future needs and the time to align their financial and personnel resources towards meeting those needs. This allows early R&D and ensures that needed solutions can be provided in a timely manner.
Another critical time to engage with industry is during the pre-procurement stage, when the government is conducting market research and determining how to address capability gaps. Engagement with industry at this time can help DHS understand the possibilities and alternatives based on cost, risk, and desired outcome. They may gain a greater understanding of existing technologies, including commercial off-the-shelf products, which can offer significant opportunities for reduced development time, faster insertion of new technology, lower life-cycle costs, and an overall substantial cost savings to the government. Greater information sharing earlier in the process would allow DHS to define their requirements clearly within the market environment, and develop realistic expectations for cost, schedule, and performance management. It would also provide industry with an opportunity to share lessons learned from their work across the federal government, as well as business practices from the private sector that could improve the way that the department operates as an enterprise.
While many current and former DHS officials have come to understand the value of this outreach to industry, it is imperative that the momentum is not lost in the transition. With new people in the top two positions, and numerous senior vacancies soon to be filled, there is a unique opportunity for the highest levels of DHS leadership to prioritize the need for continued engagement with our industry and to set this as the tone throughout the entire department. I believe that if this takes place, it will help DHS stay one step ahead of the many transitioning threats that challenge the agency.