The Department of Defense (DoD) is evaluating its acquisition processes to understand how contractors interact with the department and how it can make it easier for small businesses to provide innovative solutions to the DoD, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said on June 13.

The first step to understanding how contractors interact with the DoD is by mapping the existing system. That process, according to Hicks, also allows DoD to pinpoint and confront obstructions that might exist in the system, and ease small businesses’ entrance into that acquisition system.

In the acquisition system, “transition is one of our biggest problems,” Hicks said during the Defense One Tech Summit.

“So, we are mapping that system, which to my knowledge has never been done, which surprises me,” she said.

“Right now, we have [Research and Engineering, the Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office] and our Acquisition and Sustainment folks sitting down and just building out what is that map,” Hicks said, continuing, “and what are the friction and pain points on that map and where are we falling in the transitions?”

“The answer right now, early on, is there are dozens of pain points, spots where we are losing innovation through our system,” she said.

DoD’s innovation steering group is leading this effort, Hicks said. In addition to the mapping effort, the group has developed a “storefront website” for small businesses and contractors to begin their interaction with the Pentagon.

“If you’re a major contractor with the defense industry, you know how to get to us most likely. But if you’re a small innovator or business you probably don’t. So those little things, like just a webpage that can let you in the door, help,” Hicks said.

That “front door approach” also helps DoD keep track of all its innovation projects across its enterprise – many of which fall under smaller DoD innovation storefronts – while making the department itself more accessible to small businesses.

Additionally, Hicks wants to improve focus at the other end of the acquisition and innovation pipeline, “where academia is doing more generalized research on the technologies that inform innovative prototypes.” This is because the DoD can then understand the base concepts and can better distinguish the more mature technologies that deliver directly to the warfighter, versus shiny new tech solutions in search of problems.

“We have to have better insight into what’s happening in the external world. That’s where I think we have a lot of potentials,” she said. “We have the potential to increase partnerships, make sure our workforce has the flexibility to go out into the commercial sector, to spend fellowship time … And of course, the flagship of that is [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], where we could attract the best and the brightest into the department. We need to continue doing all of that.”

In addition, Hicks said the DoD needs to work with Congress to make sure that it has the room and flexibility to bring that technology to bear inside the department.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.