Make-or-buy decision never settled

More agencies need to become alert to when there's a shift in the market, technology, or best practice that requires a shift in approach.

Few kitchen duties match the dreariness of making pie crusts. Baking is an exacting science and one wrong variable can ensure something doesn’t come out right. Crust making requires a lot of labor and mess. Or, you can buy fresh-frozen pie crusts in the freezer case at the supermarket, and even grandma probably won’t be able to tell the difference once it comes out of the oven filled with … filling.

Make or buy — it’s a decision everyone makes continually. Brass at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency woke up a few years ago and smelled the pie baking. Geographical information has become such a widely available commodity, why does the agency need to spend billions of dollars to come up with what it can buy for millions or thousands?

Like the precious, stained recipe sheet tattered by decades of handling, old methods for generating basic mapping data have become obsolete in the age of Google Maps and widely available products like those from Digital Globe. So NGA now buys lots of basic geographical data commercially. In fact, like the Defense Department and a couple of other agencies, it’s establishing a Silicon Valley outpost to be near where a lot of the GEOINT vibe is happening.

As NGA Deputy Director Sue Gordon tells me, “Thinking about the GEOINT revolution that’s happening today, and how much energy is in the private sector in our business area,  we have to be where the technology and the people and  the data and the issues are.”

When it comes to make-or-buy, the government has always defaulted to buy — from boots in the Civil War to supercomputers today. But for the inherently governmental function of policy-making and performance of various functions, the government tends to generate, not buy, data. That’s what makes the NGA strategy unusual, or in the current vernacular, innovative.

More agencies need to become alert to when there’s a shift in the market, technology, or best practice that requires a shift in approach. NGA retains certain data generating capabilities for material not available commercially but needed by its intelligence and military customers. It becomes more efficient by having ceased to generate at high cost what is commercially available at low cost.

Agencies face controversy in domains as diverse as drug and medical device approval, and whether government facilities are best for providing routing medical care to service members and veterans. Tradition may favor “make” but performance may demand “buy.”

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