Special Ops Acquisition Official Promises More Openness, Industry Dialogue (Updated)

By Stew Magnuson
James Smith, deputy director for acquisitions at SOCOM

A Special Operations Command official Jan. 20 vowed to be more open with industry during its acquisitions processes.

James Smith, deputy director for acquisitions at SOCOM, said he has heard the criticism that program managers have been known to throw a “cone of silence” over the acquisition proceedings, a reference to the television spy spoof Get Smart. The lack of communication is said to prompt award protests.

He was also told at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference in Washington, D.C., that SOCOM’s acquisition process is in conflict with the Defense Department’s Better Buying Power 3.0 initiative, which calls for more open dialogue between the buyers and industry.

“That’s not the first time I have heard that,” Smith said during a panel discussion. There is a sense that the acquisition process is “not serving either one of us,” he said, referring to industry. “We are committed to revamping that,” he said.

“We are definitely trying to respond to that criticism.” Industry members aspiring to win an award with SOCOM and have run-of-the-mill questions should address them to the specific program manager. Leadership oversees about 400 acquisition programs at any given time, so they will not be able to answer specifics, he said.

However, if the so-called “cone of silence” has been dropped “inappropriately,” prior to a request for proposals, for example, Smith urged potential vendors to notify himself or his boss, the director of acquisition, currently James F. Geurts.

“That is definitely the kind of things we want to engage with our industry partners at the top level of the process to make sure we are engaged with you all,” Smith said.

There are other initiatives to spur dialogue, Smith said. There will be “a synchronized approach with industry about the capability gaps within U.S. SOCOM,” he added.

SOCOM in the future plans to organize at least one industry engagement event per month. That could either be the National Defense Industrial Association’s SO/LIC conference held early in the year or its SOFIC conference in May, held in Tampa, Florida. The other months will be devoted to industry days that take on certain technology needs such as sensors and biometrics. SOCOM will bring knowledgeable users to these events, not just acquisition professionals, he said.

This is “so we can spend time pushing information to you about the gaps, the requirements, [and] the needs list,” he said. There will be time carved out for one-on-one sessions. The meetings will be announced in fedbizopps.

Another initiative is SOFWERX, which is located in a building in downtown Tampa outside of MacDill Air Force Base’s gates, which have cumbersome security procedures. It is a place where more meaningful collaboration with industry can take place in order to get “left of need,” he said.

Those who want to present ideas to SOCOM can “walk in off the street” and do so during normal business hours. There is a once a week scheduled meeting time for small businesses. The last session had 11 participants, Smith said.
More “synchronous engagement” means getting out of the rut where ideas are presented to SOCOM, then there is feedback, then maybe the product is purchased at some later time.

“SOFWERX is a brick and mortar substantiation of trying to do a better job of ” engaging with industry, he added.

Another buzzword is “acquisition velocity.” Can the command speed up the process to meet the needs of its operators who are engaging in hybrid warfare? That means taking the right amount of risk, he said.

For its own part, Smith acknowledged the risk-averse nature of military technology development. Is Special Operations Command true to the mantra “fail faster?” Smith asked himself. “Where in the acquisition process does that opportunity really avail itself? Who wants to put that on their report at the end of the year? ‘I failed faster.’”

Correction: In a previous version of the story, "SOFWERX" was misspelled.

Photo: Maj Wayne Gardner, USMC (Ret)

Topics: Business Trends, Business Development, Doing Business with the Government, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict, SOF Weapons Systems

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