Defense IT

What stands in the way of DOD-Silicon Valley partnership?

In what would be a robust and adaptive initiative, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently announced he wants more coordination between his agency and the tech industry hub located in Silicon Valley. Carter outlined proposals for this public-private partnership in a speech that coincided with the release of the department’s updated cyber strategy.

The idea, which involves sharing ideas and personnel—even establishing a permanent Pentagon outreach office in the Silicon Valley— was generally well-received. But mixing the two vastly different industries might be easier said than done.   

The first barricade to success could be a race against the political clock. The 2016 presidential election cycle has already begun and the Obama administration only has 20 months left in office, not much time to implement an entirely new initiative.

One way to keep the initiative alive during the transitions is to draw bipartisan support, which Carter has done. Steve Grundman, Lund Fellow at the Scowcroft Center at the Atlantic Council, also said DOD should focus on early wins. “I would harken to one of the things [Carter] did when he was the Under Secretary of Defense and rolled out Better Buying Power, which was approaching the end of the first term,” Grundman said during an webcast hosted by the Atlantic Council. “I think one of the tactics he used there was to focus the initiatives on a couple of big objects” to “capture early wins.” Highlighting a few successful objects or signature acquisition strategies could propel the partnership beyond the current administration and into the next.

DOD’s slow acquisition speed also could present problems. One of the distinct differences in culture is that “Silicon Valley companies try to get an edge on competition, while the Pentagon tries to enforce competition,” said Patrick O'Reilly, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center.

That acquisition cycle can frustrate companies. “Competing in secret for a year and then finding out you’re not even going to get to work on that problem because some much bigger defense company got the contract” can be discouraging, Michael Horowitz, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, said during the webcast. Furthermore, O'Reilly said, skepticism between the government and Silicon Valley is “driven by drawn-out discourse between the companies trying to work” with DOD. “The processes are monumentally longer” in government and “small companies can’t wait a year for these type of decisions.”

Carter did talk during his speech about speeding up acquisitions, saying he didn’t want DOD to miss out on innovations “because the Pentagon bureaucracy was too slow to fund something” or was unwilling to work with startups. But whether DOD can actually grease its procurement wheels remains to be seen.

And, of course, there is the matter of trust. There has been an antagonistic perception in the private sector of the government, especially among tech and telecommunications organizations, following the leaks by Edward Snowden. Carter tried to assuage those feeling, admitting the DOD need to be more transparent and “and adjust the way we do things.” That’s a start, Grundman said, noting that Carter realizes that “unless the private-sector expertise that largely owns and operates the infrastructure of cyberspace can work in cooperation with the Department of Defense on a basis of trust, the U.S. is going to have perforations in its cyber defenses.”

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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