Not many task orders are worth nearly $1 billion. But the Defense Department’s Central Command just issued a big one to Peraton. CENTCOM wants help with a variety of information and intelligence challenges. For more on the contract, Peraton’s Technical Lead Program Manager Shawn Chenoweth spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin.
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Tom Temin: I think it would be beneficial to tell people who exactly Peraton is. It’s not quite a household word yet corporately, yet, you are not a small business startup, either.
Shawn Chenoweth: Effectively what Peraton is, particularly over the last year, they’ve absorbed, started as a smaller entity from the history of Harris and other organizations, but they’ve absorbed Northrop Grumman [federal IT and mission support business], who I was originally a member of in the services sector, effectively doubling the size of Peraton and then some. And then right after that, we also acquired Perspecta. So we’ve effectively doubled in size in three months each month, right? So pretty significant.
Tom Temin: And Perspecta, another name, which didn’t quite get a chance to catch on, that was part of the old HP, I believe? Okay, well, you need a genealogy chart to figure it all out. But more important is this contract. And what is it that CENTCOM is asking you to do specifically?
Shawn Chenoweth: At its core, as we’ve built the modern Peraton, right, and it’s structurally focused on what we do it being part of the critical Nexus in protecting the American people or US interests, our mission partners to directly support those missions of consequence, activities like OPIAS and other the contractor specifically speaking of, it’s really designed to achieve operational and strategic advantages primarily in the information environment.
Tom Temin: And you mentioned OPIAS – that stands for something?
Shawn Chenoweth: It does: Operational, planning, implementation and assessment support.
Tom Temin: Okay, well, a lot of those words don’t exactly say what you’re going to do that is to say, Is this a software development contract? Is it professional services? Will you be online with employees there along with CENTCOM employees? And how does it all work here?
Shawn Chenoweth: So there’s three activities I like to kind of bucket and what we’ll be doing. One would be insight, the other one will be influence. And the last one would be expertise. How I kind of break those down, when it comes to the insight, what we’re really doing is providing characterization of the information environment, right? How people behave, how they ingest information, how they use that in their cognitive faculties to then make decisions that affect the physical environment. And what’s really important to know about this particular vehicle and the efforts we’ve done in our previous incarnations, and now as part of Peraton, is that we’ve been doing this work for a long time. And it’s not just for CENTCOM – CENTCOM is the super user, but we’re actually supporting a variety of other government agencies and other combatant commands unified commands, their components, Department of State – so anyone in the US government who are seeking support in those activities have insight, influence and expertise. We’ve been doing that for for five-plus years, and we’ll continue to do that under OPIAS.
Tom Temin: And under insight, you’re looking at how people use information, that is to say, how federal employees interacting with information sources.
Shawn Chenoweth: This is really focused on foreign audiences, right? So not internal to the United States, but external, okay? So what we’re really looking at is, how do different areas who have various cultural nuances, their barriers to change, things that they’re doing that we can do to understand how to influence them to make certain decisions favorable to themselves, more often than not, and, of course, US interests in strategic goals. The globe is full of those ideological challenges. And so for the insight portion, it’s kind of characterizing those different regions, those different activities, how those target audiences work from a macro to a micro level. And then of course, the influence side, how do we appropriately message them at scales in order to get them to make behavior changes favorable to US outcomes, but also, often for themselves as well. And then, of course, when the expertise side, that’s where we’re providing the various planners that we have: Staff, social scientists, etc., that are helping enable those activities on the backend.
Tom Temin: And what countries does this tend to focus on? I imagine not France and Great Britain?
Shawn Chenoweth: Depends on the client, right? So their interests which are pretty known, if you read any of their various activities and their statements, you can kind of guess, by the combatant commands or State Department, what they might be particularly interested in and the level of effort they’re put, but basically, globally – we operate globally.
Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Shawn Chenoweth, he’s a technical lead program manager at Peraton. So for example, assuming we have some level of engagement going forward with Afghanistan, the way in which federal agencies, whether it’s the State Department or USAID possibly or whatever sends messages and information to people under the control of the Taliban or to Afghanis is different than the way they would tailor messages and communication say to people in Iraq, or people in Saudi Arabia, or wherever.
Shawn Chenoweth: Now, I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, really. And we can do things today that were unheard of even 10 years ago due to the advent of mobile technology, social media, the way people are connected, how they behave, identify themselves, what they’re interested in. So you can really get very nuanced on which target audiences you carry in a message, at which scale, how you need to tailor those messages to them – not just the messages themselves but the delivery mechanism. How you want to build a brand, manage a brand, build communities, get the population access. And it all requires, again, the experts who can build the policy and the programs, the insight that you’re actually building those plans from, and then of course, your capacity to then be influential, manage communities and have those impacts.
Tom Temin: And how do you know what a population needs to get, to be effective in terms of communication to it? How do you find that out?
Shawn Chenoweth: You’re using your pretty standard marketing techniques, right? How do they behave on their normal profiles, their portfolios, things they access, what they spend their money on, public opinion surveys, in-depth interviews – we’ll run the gambit. The most effective tools like good energy policy, right, it’s more of all, same with the messaging.
Tom Temin: So in other words, to get that information, it has to be a country, at least in which you have some freedom to operate to talk to people in-depth. For example, you couldn’t do those activities in North Korea.
Shawn Chenoweth: Well, what’s interesting about particularly what we’re doing in the information environment, and it is absolutely cogent to the way the globe is currently aligned and operating is, when it comes to pure capability, the United States, we talked – when your near-peer competitor, particularly China and Russia, and while that is true, they are a near-peer competitor, we still have a tremendous capability and leap on them generally, for the most part, right? We talk in terms of control a lot of the times when we talk and that kind of language, right? Controlling aerospace, controlling the sea controlling the land, when it comes to the information environment, there is no control. It’s a binary choice, are you going to participate in a level that matters or not? So you know would I say that there’s anywhere that we’re really denied? No, there’s not because people will always communicate, communications cross borders, it’s not limited to satellite TV or internet, it’s face-to-face communication. It’s how the word is spread, and there’s no real way to shut that down. So it really is, what are you going to do to be influential? If you choose to do nothing, then the target audiences will make their own decisions and will carry on and cannot be surprised when the outcome might be negative.
Tom Temin: So under this task order, then Peraton experts are available to a variety of agencies, including CENTCOM, but some of the other ones you mentioned, for them to develop better communication products and strategies for whatever they need to tell the outside world. That a fair way to summarize it?
Shawn Chenoweth: Absolutely, yeah. To accomplish behavior changes, right? Attitude is a poor indicator of behavior. You can still be a bad person and decide not to hurt others.
Tom Temin: Well, that’s true, too. And by the way, what contract was this task order under, where do they find you?
Shawn Chenoweth: The contract is OPIAS as we talked about – it’s under GSA.
Tom Temin: Got it. So it’s on the GSA schedule, or is OPIAS a GSA-operated vehicle?
Task order inside the GSA on the OASIS contract vehicle.
Tom Temin: OASIS – OK that’s what I was trying to get at, curious. Alright, but the manager of the task order, then, I guess the best way to put it is CENTCOM.
Shawn Chenoweth: Right, yes, absolutely. GSA administers the contract. Really, it’s an agreement between us and GSA as the prime, then the various clients access, obviously through agreements with GSA, which is why again, we’re servicing the entirety of the US government who are interested in it. CENTCOM is of course the super user.