When the National Technical Information Service launched its Joint Venture Partnership, Director Avi Bender said when it came to creating new ways for agencies to get a better handle on their data, “innovation needs a conversation.”
One year later, and with multiple federal agency customers and more than two dozen agency partnerships, NTIS has found its place in that dialogue.
“Our value proposition is not just the access to 30 world class organizations, our value proposition is we enable the conversation,” Bender said during the ACT-IAC Management of Change conference in Cambridge, Maryland. “The typical approach for solving problems within the federal space is, the feds get together, they have a problem to solve, they need to come up with a capability statement, maybe do some market research, put together a good RFP, maybe nine months later, a year and a half later the system will be defined and an award will take place. But what if we could actually do this conversation within a few weeks and engage the private sector in the conversation to help the federal government do a much better job of defining ultimately what is required? Why are we the feds, expert in what it is that we need to do? Why can’t we engage the private sector much much quicker? So we have a merit-based process that we have put in place that allows us to make that happen.”
In the year since the JVP launched, NTIS has helped agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and departments of Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security. Bender said the message that’s resonated to NTIS in the past 12 months is that there’s a need for data services, particularly related to predictive analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence.
The JVP is about providing federal agencies with access to the best data resources, Bender said, whether it’s through research institutions, non-profits or for-profits.
“It’s very difficult for the federal government to turn on a dime, and just hire a couple hundred more people,” Bender said. “What’s truly innovative here, is the approach of engaging the private sector as early as possible.”
The common trend NTIS hears from agencies when they ask for help, is that they have a legacy system or some kind of IT problem that needs to be solved.
“That is not our sweet spot,” Bender said. “Something like that really has to go through different channels. We really need to understand the core data drivers behind the problems that they have, so what we’re seeing is — and this is one of our key value propositions — we are spending more time with federal agencies up front to truly understand their key business drivers; what are their critical success factors, what are the business requirements that are driving the mission of the organization. That is becoming our sweet spot; that’s where we provide the value-added services before we even introduce our joint venture partners to help solve the problems.”
Before the partnership launched, Bender told Federal News Radio that NTIS would not be a pass-through, but would work as a lead between agencies and private sector partners.
He said agencies have been pleasantly surprised to have NTIS as a “trusted adviser,” to help them at the start of the planning process.
“What they’ve really been amazed at is they can finally have a conversation with the private sector very early in this planning process,” Bender said. “The way it typically works is we meet with the agency, put together what I would call a draft problem statement. We then take that problem statement and for the first time we actually introduce that to all of our joint venture partners. We ask them to actually grill the agency and push back and ask them why are you taking this particular approach.”
During this “design thinking phase,” Bender said, agencies begin to understand they might be solving the wrong problem. The problem statement is then reformulated and issued to all of the joint venture partners. They have about two weeks to come back with a proposed approach to solving the problem, Bender said, in a process that takes about 60-90 days.
And while the focus right now is on data-related services, Bender said, based on what he’s seeing, “I don’t know why it can’t be extended to other things in the future.”
“We’re beginning to see an important intersection between a lot of the data analytics, predictive analytics, work that we’ve been involved with, with cybersecurity,” Bender said. “We believe that is a — particularly what I would call — growth industry for us. This is something that is affecting the federal government. There are many data-intensive issues, and frankly, what we provide a value proposition, is in our ability to introduce machine learning, artificial intelligence, neural networks and other capabilities, that would allow the country and the federal agencies to anticipate threats potentially in a new way.”
Bender said next steps for NTIS include continuing to get out the message about delivery of data services, and quick, timely access to the talent and tools they need to accomplish what they want to do.
“I think it’s something that we realized from the get-go that would be a value proposition,” Bender said. “When I meet with federal agencies, it’s typically, ‘We should’ve known about this service that you provide.’ It’s interesting, when I do have the meetings, I have individuals sitting around the table from policy, strategy, security, the CIO shop, and frankly in certain situations I’m noticing these individuals not always talk to each other. This is about enabling this broad-based conversation within an agency and then externally with the private sector to drive further innovation. I see that as a great value proposition. The message is resonating and we are continuing to see greater demand for these types of data -related services.”