This is part of a recurring series, where former federal leaders reflect upon the lessons learned since leaving government.

Sonny Hashmi, now managing director for global government at cloud-storage company Box, was CIO and CTO at the General Services Administration from 2011 to 2014. He also worked for the Washington, D.C., municipal government and other private companies.

If you knew then what you know now …

How would you have partnered with industry differently?

When agency needs arise, in order to ensure fairness and equitable consideration, lengthy and detailed requirements are crafted and sent to the industry. However, this often leads to bad outcomes. In order to mitigate protest risks, requirements are increasingly specific and fixed, but they leave very little if any room for industry to offer alternate, compelling approaches to solve the stated problems. As a result, many innovative and compelling solutions don't even make it past the first gate, and the government suffers as a result. It also reinforces a cycle of inertia, whereby since government employees don't see those innovative solutions, they keep asking for what they know, and as a result, continue to get the same traditional approaches and solutions.

If I had to do it over again, I would find ways to re-think how government partners with the industry. Some of the aspects of this new approach would include:

  • Find a way to quickly execute simple, straight forward requests for information that are broadly written to get an understanding of the market, and invite cross-discipline personnel from IT and business units to review those responses.
  • Rely on broadly-written statements of objectives that identify the challenge and encourage the industry to put forth their solutions, rather than specific statements of work.
  • Add more transparency and engagement in the pre-request for proposal phase through industry days and other engagement mechanisms to allow companies to have a voice on what the requirements should be and how they should be drafted.
  • Asking for demonstrable success and solutions as early as possible in the solution life cycle, perhaps through a structured 90 day pilot approach to separate companies that have viable products from those that only offer hypothetical solutions.
  • Spend more time connecting with new and emerging companies in neutral venues like Silicon Valley conferences, and industry-government partnership organizations, and require that people at all levels in my organization do the same so collectively, we are better informed about what’s out there.

How would you have worked more effectively within the confines of the Federal Acquisition Regulation?

Some of the strategies that I would employ more deeply would be:

  1. Leverage limited term pilots (for cost) with flexible terms to terminate the agreement if the product or service does not meet stated capabilities.
  2. Employ the statement of objectives approach by default, avoiding statements of work as much as possible.
  3. Leverage contract vehicles that limit protest risk exposure.
  4. Employ industry days, demo days and pre-RFP engagement mechanisms to ensure that industry is aware of what we are trying to do, and has the ability to provide input into the process and requirements.
  5. Be more directly involved within the proposal review process to ensure that executive level vision is included in solution evaluation. Involve people from both IT and business units into the assessment more directly.
  6. Put a page limit on the size of the proposal and require electronic submission of supplemental material, data sheets and other artifacts. No one has time to read through a 200 page proposal. If a company can’t specifically describe their solution in 25 pages or less, perhaps they are not absolutely clear on how their solution meets our requirements.
  7. Put a page limit on the number of pages in each RFP/RFQ/Requirements document. If the government can’t describe what we need in 10 pages or less, maybe our expectations and requirements are too complex and will lead to failure.

How would you have sought out innovative ideas and solutions to help your agency function better?

The formal acquisition process is an awful way to invite and introduce innovation solutions. The real work of evaluating innovation and how it may fit into an agency's needs must happen continuously and well before any specific RFP is released. If the agency is not aware of what innovative solutions are out there, they can't possible draft requirements and expectations in a way that those solutions can compete.

I would spend more time in Silicon Valley and other centers of innovation across the country, meeting with accelerators, venture capital firms and startups to understand how they are approaching a certain set of challenges (for example, cybersecurity, content management, application development, identity management, etc). The idea isn't to identify a fully baked solution that we can employ tomorrow, but to understand what the contemporary thinking is related a subject so we can start thinking along the same lines. Eventually, as our agency mindset changed due to those inputs, it will lead to opportunities for those innovative companies to offer their solutions.

I would also be more rigorous about establishing a regular cadence of industry days, demo days and hackathons that allow smart companies to bring their products and services and quickly demonstrate how they can solve some pre-stated challenges.

Aaron Boyd is an awarding-winning journalist currently serving as editor of Federal Times — a Washington, D.C. institution covering federal workforce and contracting for more than 50 years — and Fifth Domain — a news and information hub focused on cybersecurity and cyberwar from a civilian, military and international perspective.

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