GETTING SCHOOLED: Capt. Alex Pytlar works with cadets during the Hacking for Defense course in this 2019 photo. Hacking for Defense is a graduate level course currently taught at 37 universities nationwide. During the course, students learn problem solving skills while working to find solutions to DOD problems. (Photo by Brandon O’Connor, U.S. Military Academy at West Point)
George Mason University study seeks to develop playbook for program managers to find best ways to work with innovative industry.
by Michael Bold
How can DOD and commercial companies work together in the most efficient way possible? Discovering the answer is the yearlong quest of a study launched in January by the Center for Government Contracting at George Mason University.
The goal of the study is to develop a best-practices acquisition playbook for the Information Age that program managers can consult and tailor to work with industry partners. Researchers will conduct interviews with government and industry professionals to discover what actually works—and doesn’t work—in the acquisition process.
“Our objective is to have this be very practically focused for program managers all around the Army acquisition community as well as the other services,” said Dr. Jerry McGinn, executive director of the Center for Government Contracting, within GMU’s School of Business. “That’s where the rubber meets the road, and that’s where the culture gets changed.”
BLUE RIBBONS BE GONE
McGinn, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served as an Army infantry officer, says he has no interest in the study becoming another in a series of blue-ribbon commissions seeking to reform the defense acquisition system. He’s after a change in approach, rather than a new set of reforms. “If you’re reforming something for 50 years, then there’s something fundamentally wrong,” he said.
DOD has created entities such as the Defense Innovation Unit, the Army Futures Command and the Air Force’s AFWERX to discover ways to target nontraditional high-tech companies for partnerships without being bogged down by the Federal Acquisition Regulation. They and other programs have used other-transaction authority agreements, commercial-solutions openings, the Small Business Innovation Research and the Small Business Technology Transfer programs, and other mechanisms to develop prototypes and systems. But scaling those efforts into programs of record has proven daunting. What’s more, those approaches have just been an end run around the problem, McGinn said. “What we need to do is, instead of trying to fix the system again, how do we bring the best practices into and adapt the existing system? Get the product managers, program managers, contracts officers across the department to help them bring some of these commercial ideas to their work.”
In addition to his Army career, McGinn has experience within DOD, having served as the senior career official in the Office of Manufacturing and Industrial Base and as special assistant principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. He also spent a decade in senior defense industry roles, at McGinn Defense Consulting LLC, Deloitte Consulting LLP, QinetiQ North America, and Northrop Grumman. He was also a political scientist at RAND Corp.
Next Generation InsurgenCY
The study is being funded by donations to the GMU Foundation in support of defense acquisition research from the Common Mission Project and some of the leading companies in technology: Anduril, BMNT Inc., Improbable, Scale, Balius Partners and goTenna. The Common Mission Project is the nonprofit partner of BMNT, whose CEO, Peter Newell, is a former Army colonel who led the Rapid Equipping Force before retiring to lead BMNT’s mission of linking DOD with Silicon Valley innovation. The Common Mission Project runs Hacking for Defense, which is now being taught at 44 universities nationwide, as well as Hacking for Diplomacy and other mission-driven academic programs.
In addition to raising donations for the study, the Common Mission Project organized the advisory group of companies that donated funds for the project and is advising the researchers. “What we want to do is harness the intellectual talent around defense innovation, and figure out how to get more tech and problem solving into the government,” Alex Gallo, Common Mission Project’s executive director, said in a February interview with Army AL&T. Gallo previously was a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, and a staffer for the House Armed Services Committee.
TECH WHERE IT’S NEEDED
Gallo, who is also a West Point graduate, , looks back at his deployment to Iraq as an infantry officer in 2004 as an example of an acquisition process that had lost its way. “When we got to Kuwait, we got a ton of really interesting and cool equipment. My Soldiers and I, we had fun learning about it in the deserts of Kuwait. But when we went to Samarra, Iraq, and combat, all of that new equipment sat in our Connex [cargo container] for the entire year, because they were all solutions in search of problems. And they were not solutions to any of our problems.”
The Common Mission Project is looking for problem-based solutions for defense acquisition. “We want a problem-based, disciplined and, yes, entrepreneurial framework,” using industry’s agile approach, Gallo said. “But it has to be within a disciplined framework. And it has to be problem-based solution, because we could bring in a ton of emerging technology, and at a rapid pace, but they may not actually serve a warfighter need.”
McGinn started George Mason’s Center for Government Contracting in 2019. Taking advantage of its location—the university is a 35-minute drive from the Pentagon, depending on traffic (which during pre-COVID times could be formidable)—the center seeks to fill a niche that no other university has filled—“the business of government and the overall ecosystem of government contracting,” as McGinn put it. “There’s no university really, as a research center, focused around the business of government and how the Department of Defense and other agencies work with companies. I saw that and it surprised me.”
In a year, the acquisition playbook that the GMU study produces will aim to combine the best of commercial and defense innovation in a product that government professionals will find educating, informative and full of practical approaches to innovative acquisition. The playbook will be used for not only the benefit of the students, but also the benefit of government, industry and academia.
“It’s really about taking the tools that have been developed, in law and regulation and then policy, and helping the system move forward, because a lot of this is about changing culture,” McGinn said.
MICHAEL BOLD provides contract support to the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center. He is a writer-editor for Network Runners Inc., with more than 30 years of editing experience at newspapers, including the McClatchy Washington Bureau, The Sacramento Bee, the San Jose Mercury News, the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Missouri.
Read the full article in the Spring 2021 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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