NGA seeks to enable speedy innovation, optimize partnerships with industry
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), like many other government agencies, has found itself consistently outpaced by commercial industry when it comes to the development of progressive GEOINT tools and solutions. Rather than trying to compete with industry, the agency has focused on contracting with private sector innovators to leverage their creativity and technical expertise.
At USGIF’s GEOINT 2017 Symposium in June, NGA participated in an “Acquisition Report Card” panel session to discuss the evolution of the agency’s acquisition strategy and to glean constructive feedback from industry spectators seeking government partnership. Audience reaction was critical, which was not surprising to agency representatives.
According to Nicole Pierce, NGA’s head of contract services, industry’s main criticisms of the acquisition system predictably revolved around timeliness.
“We’re taking way too long to do things, and it’s a drain on [our partners’] resources,” Pierce said.
To cut down on wastefulness, NGA is working to reduce its acquisition timeline and to lower bureaucratic process barriers that hold companies in limbo—for example, requiring proposals to be reviewed by numerous boards before awarding a contract. A company might spend months pitching a project and waiting for a response, only to be declined. NGA aims to eliminate traps such as these.
To be more generous and experimental with its partnerships, NGA must first perfect what Pierce refers to as “Phase One.” Often called acquisition planning, this is an area in which—before ever issuing a public request for information (RFI)—the agency articulates internally exactly what end capabilities or services it seeks and how those capabilities would benefit national security. NGA has neglected Phase One for years and hopes to improve it in order to enhance and accelerate the entire acquisition cycle, according to Pierce.
Agile acquisition is about acknowledging where our bottlenecks are and how we break down those barriers.”
— Donna Logsdon, Deputy Component Acquisition Executive, NGA
If project requirements are not clearly defined and communicated to industry partners, contracts often end up delayed. Pierce referenced a delayed program called Patagonia, which was a call for commercial vendors to develop a cloud-provisioned content library for structured and unstructured GEOINT data.
“There was a recognition that perhaps we weren’t getting it right,” Pierce said. “[We need to] make sure that we don’t engage industry before we’re ready—where we go out with an RFI or a draft RFP saying we’re going to do something one way, and when the final [RFP] comes out we do it a different way.”
This problem isn’t exclusive to the contract team—NGA’s overall acquisition governance recognizes the need for clearer communication. Deputy Component Acquisition Executive Donna Logsdon said, “We often don’t do a good job at clearly defining what success looks like and not just success for us, but success for the industry partner as well.”
Clear, two-way dialogue is necessary to ensure partners understand exactly what challenges NGA is struggling with and what is required of industry solutions.
One important tool NGA is leveraging to improve communication and promote collaboration with industry is the GEOINT Solutions Marketplace (GSM), an interactive online repository for information about GEOINT users’ needs and challenges.
According to NGA industry advocate Daniel Takane, “It’s all about evolving our market research into market understanding.”
GSM features a problem center that details specific GEOINT obstacles that require solutions in addition to a capabilities catalog, which is a centralized list of products, services, and data offered by GSM members.
New to GSM is the Commercial GEOINT Activity (CGA), a partnership between NGA and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). CGA provides preliminary assessments of commercial GEOINT offerings that have the potential to satisfy Community mission needs, including activity characterization, activity discovery, and mapping. A remote sensing company, for example, could upload a change-detection offering to GSM’s capabilities catalog. The CGA Leaderboard, a new web platform accessible via GSM, would assess the offering’s usefulness to NGA to determine whether the company would be an apt fit for an upcoming contract. The Leaderboard will serve as a digital scoreboard that articulates joint NGA/NRO needs and allows prospective industry partners to score their solutions against those needs as a means of gathering timely feedback about their business prospects.
Clarity in the pre-contract domain is just the tip of the iceberg in reforming NGA’s acquisition program. Since Sue Gordon—as of press time nominated to be Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence—assumed the role of NGA deputy director in 2015, agility has become the primary emphasis.
Agile acquisition serves to improve NGA’s speed to market. According to an open letter Gordon issued to the NGA workforce shortly after she joined the agency, national security threats do not brake for outdated bureaucracy, so why should the federal government adhere to passé processes that slow the delivery of crucial capabilities?
“Agile acquisition is about acknowledging where our bottlenecks are and how we break down those barriers,” Logsdon said. She and Pierce are co-chairing a study to identify choke points where agile methodology could be applied to save valuable time and resources, not just in the acquisition cycle but in NGA’s corporate governance as well. According to NGA, the study is expected to be released in the fall.
Logsdon reiterated source selection is one of these problem areas, and she recommended written process requirements that would shorten the timeline between when an RFP is issued and when NGA makes a final source selection for a contract.
NGA’s new acquisition workforce strategy, released in April, sees the agency pivot away from the program management focus of the last decade, which concentrated energy on things such as certification and systems engineering, to a more technical, performance-based nucleus. NGA employs many of government’s finest program managers, Logsdon said, but that priority has detracted from the agency’s technical edge. Rather than simply making sure a project is on schedule and under budget, it is increasingly essential to verify that programs are operating efficiently and delivering on goals.
To improve this process, NGA is encouraging program managers to enroll in internal coding classes to sharpen their skills and keep abreast of the proficiency of modern industry. Even NGA Director Robert Cardillo has completed some of the coding training. Critical thinking courses are being offered as well to help managers fully digest information provided by analysts.
To further enhance industry partnerships, NGA is working to become more software and data orientated—one of the primary goals identified at GEOINT 2017 by agency director of plans and programs Dr. Anthony Vinci.
More artificial intelligence programs, for example, will be introduced to allow analysts to reallocate their energy to more critical assignments such as event prediction. Furthermore, data will be offered as a form of digital currency when partnering with industry. With years of historic intelligence records, the agency possesses a vast abundance of data wealth that can be shared to help meet mission demands.
“Data is going to become the new oil for [NGA] in a lot of ways,” Logsdon said.
Instead of paying a commercial vendor to develop an image recognition algorithm, for example, NGA might give the vendor access to heaps of relevant, high-quality data that small, non-government companies would never be able to collect on their own. That data accelerates the production, testing, and practical application of the algorithm and bolsters the vendor’s own internal research.
New, nontraditional companies that wouldn’t otherwise want to compete in the government market might be attracted to the availability of NGA’s extensive data pool, trading their services for access and subsequently strengthening the relationship between the public and private sectors.
Industry partners both old and new are cautiously hopeful regarding the shift to agile acquisition practices.
“Achieving a more agile acquisition framework is enviable, but I’m not certain this is close to reality,” said Michael Goman, a program manager at Altamira who attended the GEOINT 2017 report card session. “Recent efforts such as Patagonia make me think NGA isn’t certain what it wants. For example, I would like to see a definitive statement and acquisition announcements that show whether NGA is committed to [Amazon Web Services]. One of the big question marks for the Community is how to get existing databases into the cloud. …Small and flexible acquisitions that do not require mega companies to respond represents a solid strategy—if there is enough meat on the bones to determine where to invest and how to shape opportunities.”
Smaller, more flexible acquisition is the goal, and the shift to agile acquisition will ripple beyond NGA project management—contracts issued by the agency will undergo renovation as well.
I think we scared some small businesses away from doing business with us because maybe our RFP states that having past performance in an NGA environment is desired.”
— Nicole Pierce, Head of Contract Services, NGA
Returning to the Patagonia contract as an example, NGA asked, “Can we make this into smaller, more modular activities where we can more clearly articulate what our requirements are to industry?” Logsdon said. “We did this with Patagonia, and it was a wonderful experience.”
Specific clauses within contract text may be slowing solution development as well. NGA plans to revamp contract language to emphasize the delivery of end capabilities rather than adherence to traditional development processes.
“To support agile, we’ve created capacity-based contracts,” Pierce said. “We’re buying in sprints. We’re not buying a system that’s confined to requirements A, B, C, and D in the contract vehicle itself.”
Where a traditional contract might stipulate that a vendor must deliver a series of results in a certain order with a pre-allocated number of human resources, a contract under the new system would simply specify a deliverable outcome without restricting how to achieve it.
NGA has made provisions for new contracts to be more flexible. According to Pierce, this applies primarily to the concept of “scope” within a contract, and NGA’s traditionally strict adherence to that scope. Literal interpretations by the agency’s acquisition governance may be limiting innovation in the post-award environment—a hypothesis Pierce posed to the audience at GEOINT 2017. Innovation often requires deviation from expected methodologies, and creative solutions can sometimes qualify as changes of scope that would violate NGA’s contractual agreement with a vendor.
To avoid stymieing creativity and driving away potential partners with red tape, NGA is beginning to expand contract scopes to allow vendors to rearrange their developmental priorities if they discover new room to innovate—the idea being that adaptability will breed ingenuity.
Logsdon said this is another area that relies upon a cultural adjustment within NGA’s acquisition workforce—an adjustment that would return to program managers the right to authorize funding for inventive methods and research without needing to approach NGA’s legal department to rewrite a contract.
She also highlighted the need to incentivize vendors within their contracts to push the envelope and explore ways to save time or money, even if those opportunities exist outside of the original project scope.
The Department of Defense (DoD), for instance, directs a “value engineering” initiative that awards contracts to companies with ideas of any kind resulting in proven cost savings or product improvements. According to the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, value engineering has resulted in cost avoidances of approximately $1 billion per year for the DoD—savings NGA would also like to see in the coming years.
To help drive efficiencies, NGA has also begun to explore the use of government wide acquisition contracts (GWACs) through its new Commercial Initiative to Buy Operationally Responsive GEOINT (CIBORG) contract vehicle with the General Services Administration. CIBORG will allow NGA to take advantage of the explosion in geospatial sources and information while brokering commercial imagery products for other government agencies, the military, and first responders.
During a Government Pavilion Stage session on CIBORG at GEOINT 2017, NGA Director of Source Justin Poole described the program as “an excellent opportunity” for companies not used to doing business with the agency. Another primary goal of this nontraditional supply chain is to more quickly connect customers with solutions.
“MDA Information Systems is excited that NGA is looking for new ways to partner with commercial businesses,” said Don Schaefer, president of MDA Information Systems. “We were one of the first companies to offer our products and services under [CIBORG] and are looking forward to NGA utilizing faster, more direct methods to secure commercial products.”
However, NGA’s mission often requires vendors with experience in the geospatial domain that understand the intricacies of the GEOINT tradecraft. GWACs don’t always offer vendors with that detailed understanding, so government-wide contracts may not always be the most appropriate or effective route.
Engaging Small Business
Changes to contract language and processes would invite partnerships with a new population of innovative startups and small businesses—a population that has historically had trouble breaking into the market as a result of NGA’s past-performance requirements.
“I think we scared some small businesses away from doing business with us because maybe our RFP states that having past performance in an NGA environment is desired,” Pierce said. “A company that hasn’t done business with the government before isn’t going to be able to check that box, but is that really necessary?”
Instead, she proposes NGA seek proof that potential partners can deliver requested work quickly and effectively regardless of their experience in a government-contract environment.
To that end, NGA awarded a $20 million contract last October to commercial remote sensing leader Planet for access to the small sat developer’s global imagery archive—a significant partnership for the company, which with less than 500 employees is considered a small business by most standards.
Engaging young, unconventional businesses is a steadily expanding initiative for NGA. In summer 2016, NGA opened an innovation center in Silicon Valley called NGA Outpost Valley, hoping to leverage the capabilities and novel energy of the area’s thriving startup community. Since then, NGA has established a presence in more tech-centric locales, including Boston, San Antonio, Austin, and New York City.
GEOINT 2017 audience report cards graded NGA’s industry engagement this year at a B-, which was an improvement from the C+ rating it gave the agency at GEOINT 2016. Though NGA’s efforts are not going unnoticed, room for improvement remains.
The agency has tested new strategies such as one-on-one meetings with prospective partners, which “industry really likes when we’re in the middle of a competitive procurement,” Pierce said.
Traditional industry days can foster an environment of secrecy—no small business wants to share its particular methods with contract competitors—so one-on-one sit-downs with NGA encourage more candid dialogues.
“[NGA] knows that we can’t solve all of GEOINT’s problems alone,” Takane said. “I don’t think industry can either.”
Rhonda Cornelsen, CEO of Helm Point Solutions, said she appreciates events such as the Acquisition Report Card Session, which provides industry a voice and offers insight into NGA’s efforts to modernize acquisition.
“As a cybersecurity contractor, we applaud NGA’s efforts to embrace agile acquisition and their candid dialogue with industry,” Helsen said. “Agile acquisition is a tall order to fill and may not fit every situation, but with a terrorist threat that can morph at will, the country needs the agility to quell the threat promptly.”
Collaboration between government and commercial industry is necessary to combat emerging threats and to secure the geospatial environment of tomorrow. While continuously seeking improvements to its acquisition processes, NGA aims to respond constructively to industry’s evolving needs and to build up and maintain a strong relationship between public and private GEOINT innovators.