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Tackling Both Sides of the Government Innovation Challenge

Bringing commercial technology into the federal market requires a comprehensive solution.

Critics of the federal government and its archaic technologies have no shortage of issues to blame as barriers to innovation: long acquisition timelines, burdensome compliance regulations, antiquated procurement processes, risk-averse contracting officers, and IP concerns to name a few. As a recent Government Executive article points out, even the government’s innovation organizations and offices in tech hubs have, in some ways, become additional complications in a good-faith effort to fix the problem. 

Bringing new, commercial technology into the federal market is challenging and requires a comprehensive solution, and despite smart analyses and good intentions, many ideas focus on just one sliver of the problem and fall short.

Yes, emerging tech companies and federal agencies do face an uphill battle in finding each other. Putting federal innovation hubs on one map for tech companies is not off track, but it won’t get us to our desired destination, where tech and government can work together more effectively and improve the way government runs.

If you want to advance federal agency missions with commercial technology, you need to address both the tech and the government. Helping tech companies and government agencies find each other is just one step of a larger journey.

The Government Side

From what I’ve seen in more than 14 years of working with government, federal agencies have an opportunity to better define their needs and scope of work, align innovation hubs with their mission-focused offices, and connect with leaders across other agencies to share lessons learned.

The government tends to be overly prescriptive in identifying the solutions it thinks it needs. Dcode runs innovation training for government leaders that encourages efforts that are small in scope, iterative, and measurable, and we see promising progress when we work with government leaders to reframe their ideas from “I need this exact tool” to “I need a way to accomplish this goal.”

Gaps also exist between government innovation hubs and those charged with pushing an agency’s mission day in and day out. Federal agencies and their innovation hubs should work together to make sure they are on the same page about their greatest needs, the technology solutions that could potentially address those needs, and concrete ways to acquire what they need.

When I worked in the intelligence community, I matched use cases with emerging technologies that In-Q-Tel scouted. There’s great tech out there that could improve the way government runs, but often those officers charged with carrying out an agency’s day-to-day mission don’t have the authority to change the way that mission is accomplished. The key is to find people willing to dedicate the extra time it takes to improve the government’s business processes, whether that’s in their job descriptions or not. 

I recently attended an innovation program at the Health and Human Services Department that takes teams from across HHS agencies and gives them time to work together on a problem. Events like HHS Innovation Day convene and provide opportunities for federal employees who don’t work at innovation hubs but are connected directly to agency missions.

Whether you work within an innovation hub or a parent agency, the good news is that plenty of government leaders and contracting professionals are ready to push the envelope. Find those people eager to work with you on bringing commercial technology into the government. 

The Technology Side

Bringing technology solutions into government is tough. Traditional market research doesn’t work, and standard tech scouting falls short. The tech government needs often isn’t even found within the federal market, and when tech companies do look at the federal market, they don’t know how to work with government effectively.

In our experience scouting more than 10,000 innovative product companies across 11 technology areas that could impact government missions, we’ve found that a robust set of criteria to gauge potential success in the federal market is critical to connecting government leaders with tech solutions that not only address their needs but are also positioned to succeed in government. We’ve seen exciting results with many venture-backed tech companies in the federal market, representing big opportunities for government to implement tech that exists today and is ready for use.

One of the biggest indicators of success for tech companies is federal market knowledge. Tech companies must understand the barriers they’ll need to overcome to land government deals.

Tech companies looking to scale in the federal market need to tailor use cases to government needs, understand compliance regulations, and prepare for all that comes after closing a federal contract. Entering the federal market is a heavy, risky decision for tech companies and can make or break them if they get it wrong.

Connecting Tech and Government

Educating both sides of the equation is great, but we also need to bring both sides together. How do you do that? Create ongoing opportunities for tech companies to meet government buyers and other federal market players. Don’t lose sight of the broader ecosystem, linking together innovation hubs, mission-focused government leaders who care about making things better, and commercial tech companies that are poised to succeed in the federal market.

It’s critical that government teams know innovative acquisition practices, how to scale solutions and advance their mission, and the emerging tech landscape. Then they will be ready to connect with tech companies that make sense for the mission and are ready to work with government.

Rebecca Gevalt is the Managing Director of Government Programs at Dcode, a privately-owned company connecting federal agencies and emerging tech companies to improve the way government runs. She previously worked at the CIA with In-Q-Tel to bring emerging technologies into the national security space.