In this tight budget climate — and with the specter of sequestration looming ever closer — federal managers across government may have to make some difficult decisions like, which projects can be reorganized and scaled back? But, how do managers decide which ones can be cut?
Dan Gerstein, deputy under secretary at the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, has been there. In fiscal 2012, his agency’s research and development budget was slashed by more than half. And for an agency that’s responsible for nearly all the R&D for DHS and its two dozen components, it was a significant setback.
“It was a very difficult time for us,” Gerstein said on Agency of the Month. “Just in our own portfolio, for example, we went from about 250 projects down to about 75 projects.”
S&T has weathered the storm by getting organized, prioritizing projects and realigning its goals.
First, S&T settled on five priorities: bio-defense, cybersecurity, homemade explosives, first responders and resilience.
“We had to ask what was important,” Gerstein said.
S&T has seen a number of recent successes in these areas, including developing a foot-and-mouth vaccine that is now commercially available, and the Domain Name System Security initiative.
It also instituted a portfolio review process to determine where to make cuts.
“We were able to look at our projects and say, ‘which ones are not performing to the level they should? Which need to be retooled so that they would be better, and have a better opportunity to transition to operational capability?’ And in that way, we did make some tough calls,” Gerstein said.
For example, a review of a tunnel detection program on the Southwest border led to the project being halted for one year.
S&T has also employed a different method than the tradition R&D called “tech foraging,” which means searching for technologies in the late stages of development that can be applied to the DHS mission with minimal testing or modification.
“We have to share the work that’s already gone on within the government. Rather than pay for it two and three times, we have to find out what else is out there, who else has already done work in a mission space, and how can we then bring that information to us to make our projects more effective, to get them to transition sooner,” Gerstein said.
There are three components to good tech foraging, Gerstein said: understanding the state of a particular technology, finding capabilities that can be quickly adapted or incorporated and finding potential partners.
To that end, S&T meets frequently with industry and government leaders to find those points of common interest.
“We have a great deal to learn from the private sector,” Gerstein said. “In some of these new fields…the government is not the leader in these industries.”
It also offers a webinar series covering a range of topics, including instruction on RFPs and RFIs.
Explaining these processes helps to find business partners to unroll its projects. For example, S&T has developed a resilient electric grid cable, which could quickly repair an electrical grid after an event like Superstorm Sandy. But it needs a commercial partner to deploy the cable.
“We really depend on industry very much for ultimately transitioning our capabilities where they will be able to make a difference,” Gerstein said.