Takeaways from TechAmerica’s Vision conference — DoD style

For the first time in years — maybe as much as a decade — TechAmerica opened up its annual Vision conference to the press. A happy occasion for those us who felt left out for so many years.

If you are looking to understand the trends and drivers in the federal contracting market, few events are better.

There is a ton of information about upcoming contracts, including the timing around the release of solicitations and potential awards, and current and forecasted spending data, but what stands out to me is in the interviews with federal executives and the trends they show.

Let me start with some of the items that stood out during the Defense Department day:

  • Katrina McFarland, the undersecretary for acquisition, offered a startling figure around DoD’s ability to stay on top technologically. She said over the last five years, the funding for design engineering has decreased by almost 50 percent.

    “That’s not trivial. That’s engineers, the basic foundation of innovation. History, however, has shown us when you invest in research and development during the times that we see threats on the horizon and in a period of declining economy or declining budget or complacent periods, those that have prepared themselves by investment are prepared for the future,” she said.

    McFarland is beating DoD’s latest drum — first it was budget cuts, then sequestration and both of those impacts on readiness. Now, the Pentagon is trying to drive home the point that if the R&D budgets are cared for, the next generation of technology are at a higher risk. A recent analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on fiscal 2013 contract shows that may be a valid concern. CSIS found that spending in 2013 on R&D dropped by 21 percent.

  • The Defense Information Systems Agency is close to finishing its major reorganization into four functional directorates with senior staff reductions and realignments. It’s part of the DoD move to re-establish at joint task force for cyber. Gerry Robbins, the team lead for the 2015 TechAmerica Foundation Visions Defense IT market forecast, said DoD is formalizing the cybersecurity mission as U.S. Cyber Command is relinquishing its operational role to DISA’s new JTF. Robbins said this is part of the shift from where a big chunk of the $5 billion DoD cyber spending will come. To that end, DoD needs help around identity management and access control from an enterprise level, and there is a growing desire to standardize and add more rigor to the data tagging, security and trust processes. Watch out for the formal DISA reorganization announcement in the coming weeks.
  • DoD and the military services are providing a roadmap to industry through the vision conference. The voice of the customer as told to the TechAmerica folks:
    • “Adopting open standards is crucial to achieving DoD’s vision for a knowledge-based force.”
    • “We know Industry will protest, so we will be ultra careful and try for a perfect RFP.”
    • “Risk management is a key to success and we have not figured out how to balance the risk factors.”

    The call for open standards and open systems resonated throughout the conference. The TechAmerica Navy team found that service wants open system and open standard to reduce software spending.

    McFarland said interoperability, modularity and open systems are part of how DoD wants to create a competitive environment to keep up with the changing threats and technological needs that DoD faces.

    Nearly every military service is planning for protests, adding as much as 100 days to the acquisition timeline.

    Risk management is a growing trend not just in DoD but across the government. Watch out for the Office of Management and Budget to issue guidance around risk management in the coming months.

This post is part of Jason Miller’s Inside the Reporter’s Notebook feature. Read more from this edition of Jason’s Notebook.

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