"Government agencies who ask entrepreneurs to have a seat at the table will be on the cutting edge of innovation with startups," said Douglas Maughan, Director of Cyber Security Division at the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency and panelist at the GovernmentCIO Media & Research's CXO Tech Forum: Uncle Sam Meets Silicon Valley. Members of the Merritt Group Samsung Federal team attended the event consisting of three panels featuring speakers from the Army Research Laboratory, In-Q-Tel, Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), 18F and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Senior leaders from defense, federal and research agencies shared how they are collaborating with academia and industry startups through partnerships, exploring open challenges, code-a-thons, and accelerators to embrace and develop the next level of analytics, automation, efficiency and workforce to enable success.
In fact, it’s believed that AI will add nearly $16 trillion to the global economy by 2030, and 20 percent of companies in a recent survey are already planning to incorporate AI in 2019. At the event, each panel explored various aspects of this theme including national security, veterans' healthcare experience and government innovations hubs. Here are some key takeaways that you should know when Uncle Sam and Silicon Valley meet up:
1. Government agencies should seek empathy and a strong product team when working with industry partners. An overlapping theme between panels consisted of defining key characteristics that agencies are on the lookout for when selecting partners. They can be boiled down to two qualities:
A founder who has empathy for the mission: This characteristic is important to ensure alignment with the startup. Moreover, empathy for the mission is directly tied to empathy of the development process. This encompasses empathy with the user, coworkers and the rest of the organization. For example, Dr. Jaret Riddick, Director of the Vehicle Technology Directorate at the Army Research Laboratory, said “Uber Elevate is a partnership we developed over a long period of time. They have a very specific problem that they want to solve which directly aligns with the Army Research Lab’s problem to achieve quiet air technology in tactical environments.”
A strong product team that has the ability to make complex things look super simple: Having a strong product mindset from the development phase to testing (with actual users) is a core part of how development is done in Silicon Valley. If a startup demonstrates this capability while answering a federal need, their chances of becoming a working partner with a federal agency are much higher. This is a piece of the process that government agencies can be extremely successful with the integration of a DevOps culture. DevOps is a critical component of modern software development practices and aims to shorten the systems development life cycle while delivering features, fixes and updates frequently in close alignment with business objectives.
Once a startup checks both of these boxes off, next comes the challenge of adhering to federal processes. Agencies cannot just copy and paste a solution or piece of technology and apply it directly to a government scenario. Enter what David Bao, Deputy Executive Director of the Digital Service at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), described as “bureaucracy hacking.” Bureaucracy hacking is the process of bringing in a specialist or expert in policy and federal processes to align a solution’s mission to comply with and navigate government standards, which is critical for successfully implementing new federal technologies.
2. Motivating Silicon Valley companies to work with government agencies is not rocket science. "When it comes to motivating startups, it’s actually quite simple,” said Douglas Maughan. According to Maughan, startups aren’t overwhelmingly used to working with government agencies and the motivation is formed by where they stand in the commercial path. It is simply a matter of agencies taking notice, providing funding along with making the requests for any necessary changes to the startup’s product.
In the end, the technology that government agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), are developing must have what Maughan described as a “commercial market flavor” (i.e. success in selling to the commercial market) to be effective with users.
3. Improving user experience starts with users. During the Improving Veterans' Healthcare Experience panel – featuring Barbara Morton, Deputy Chief Veterans Experience Officer and Bao of Digital Services at the VA – VA experts shared the recent success of the relaunch of www.va.gov.
A Silicon Valley transplant, Bao described how the relaunch of the website relied on feedback provided by veterans themselves. As opposed to other digital projects, Bao’s team took a more iterative process, developing and testing several prototypes of the website to be shared with veterans in veteran facilities. Months leading up to launch, they had various versions of the website they were making available and gathering feedback on. This tactic along, with other agile processes, allowed the website to achieve a successful redesign and launch, making it significantly easier to navigate, provide resources and deliver a user-friendly experience designed with veterans in mind.
Tremendous innovation is not only coming out of Silicon Valley but also being deployed by small businesses and academic institutions across the country. Opportunities for partnership and collaboration with government agencies are developing every day, making it more important than ever for tech companies, large and small, to hone in on their message, mission and brand recognition. Agencies like DHS, the VA and HHS are increasingly focused on building relationships with industry partners as an effort to incorporate emerging technology into the federal space. The end product includes strengthened IT infrastructure, cybersecurity and increased efficiency.
Public relations and marketing professionals in both federal and private sectors should be aware of the increasing interest of agencies to work with startups. Commercial companies need to consider how they can communicate their mission and solution to a federal audience that will stand out among other startups, small businesses and academic groups. Based on the discussions of the event, organizations should stay authentic, empathetic and collaborative in order to work towards one solution with federal agencies to ensure the U.S. stays on the cutting edge of innovation for the long run.
Stay tuned for more insights from the Government Group on the impact private sector startups are having on federal agencies! Also, check out the Merritt Group team’s inside scoop on reaching federal markets with digital marketing.