Defending the nation against cyber attacks and supporting the missions of the National Security Agency, Defense Information Systems Agency and U.S. Cyber Command have always been enormously challenging. But the last two years layered added challenges onto that task — a global pandemic, dramatic changes in work patterns, the great resignation (on top of a chronic talent shortage) and now a new war in Europe.
So when members of the Fort Meade Alliance gathered earlier this month for the first in-person Industry Day in two years, much of the discussion focused on how to refine contracting practices to better tap the talent and fuel the growth of contractors, especially small businesses.
The largest, recent change to the small business contracting strategy of the Maryland procurement office was the cancellation earlier this year of the next iteration of the NSA Set-Aside for Small Businesses (NSETS 4).
“We did it because we wanted to increase our small business participation,” said Diane Dunshee, NSA Senior Acquisition Executive. “We have a good record. In FY21, we exceeded our small business contracting goals as well as exceeding goals for all the socio-economic subfactors with the exception of service-disabled, veteran-owned small business.”
NSA officials concluded that a fourth iteration of NSETS – a large, multi-year, IDIQ contracting vehicle – was not the best tool to achieve those new goals. While NSETS enabled select small businesses to bid on multiple contracts for at least five years, “it didn’t allow opportunities for new small businesses to get awards and enter the market,” Dunshee said.
The cancellation of NSETS4 has left many in the community wondering how NSA’s change in contract strategy could impact both their own businesses and the development of early stage small businesses.
“We were planning to bid to prime NSETS 4. We had put together a great team and we were excited,” said Quentin Smith, COO of S of X Technology Partners, LLC.
NSETS, he noted, had improved over time, offering small businesses more meaningful work and more opportunities to do best-value contracting rather than low-price, technically acceptable bids.
“But it may be better for the small business community to not have the NSETS vehicle,” Smith said. “The winners of the original NSETS contracts would be about 15 companies so only 15 companies could bid on that work over the next five years. Moving to more standard contracting could end up giving contracts to a lot more small businesses. But the proof will be in the pudding.”
Jennifer Walker, President and CEO of Resolute Technologies, LLC, noted that NSETS previously provided many small companies with “an opportunity to grow up through the ranks, to cut their teeth as primes enabling them the opportunity to become viable primes for larger efforts… An unintended consequence of cancelling NSETS might be that some small companies won’t have a vehicle for their growth and development into prime status… Our industry needs that constant influx of small start-ups to become the next generation of viable small business primes for the Agency. I think NSETS was a good mechanism for that and it will likely be missed. But that being said, the Agency is certainly finding other creative mechanisms, such as the Mission Focused Team structure, to enable small businesses with opportunities to prime larger efforts and gain mentorship from large businesses in industry which has been very successful.”
During a panel discussion at Industry Day, senior officials from NSA, DISA and U. S. Cyber Command discussed current and expanding efforts to engage and contract with small businesses.
“We aim to be more engaged with the community and with industry,” said Douglas Packard, Director of DISA’s Procurement Directorate and Chief of the Defense Information Technology Contracting Organization (DITCO).
In FY21, DISA’s total contracting to small businesses was $1.6 billion. That included $795 million to small disadvantaged businesses (SDB), $554 million to woman-owned businesses (WOSB), $286 million to small disadvantaged veteran-owned businesses (SDVOSB), and $216 million to HUB Zone businesses.
DISA, however, is aiming to increase those numbers. Packard urged small businesses to do three things: first, respond to sources sought so DISA can do set-asides; second, bid on opportunities; “and third, when you get the contract, perform. If you don’t, somebody with three stars calls me.”
A relatively new agency, U.S. Cyber Command is still building its acquisitions infrastructure.
“We don’t have a formal small business advocate yet,” said Sharothi Pikar, Command Acquisition Executive and Director of Acquisition and Technology, J9 at U.S. Cyber Command. “But when you look at our statistics, we have actually met our goals and exceeded them in many ways when it comes to small businesses, disadvantaged businesses and woman-owned businesses. We need the talent and small business is where a lot of the talent comes from.”
“Across all of those categories, with the exception of the women-owned small businesses, we exceeded our goals,” Pikar said.
USCYBERCOM plans to do a second Industry Day in June which will include key leaders from the Command to discuss major challenges and technology/contracting needs. It expects to release an updated, unclassified list of technical challenges through Dreamport in April or May, and is finalizing a classified list of challenges. The Command also hosts informal gatherings with industry at Dreamport and enables companies to submit their capabilities and technologies through its contracting website.
As Covid restrictions ease, NSA is beginning to schedule one-on-one meetings between companies and contracting officers. It is reopening the Acquisition Resource Center and enabling small businesses to make one-hour reservations at the ARC. It is also deploying a mobile polygraph unit to help ease the backlog of security clearance applications. Realizing it needed to increase contracting to service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses (SDVOSB), NSA reached out to SDVOSBs during the pandemic and conducted virtual “Pathways to Success” briefings with hundreds of companies.
“The DoD Office of Small Business reported that over the past decade they have seen a 40 percent decrease in their small business industrial base. During the same period, we have actually seen growth… [Over the past year], we have seen a six percent increase in the number of businesses that are registered in the ARC,” Dunshee said.
Given the large and evolving contracting environment in the Fort Meade Region, FMA President Doreen Harwood advised small businesses to avail of the current opportunities for education, connections and contracts. “Definitely make sure to attend the DISA matchmaking event and the NSA matchmaking event on April 25 and June 2. Scour the industry forecasts; look at NSA, Cyber Command and DISA opportunities; and proactively engage with those organizations. Sign up for the Cyber Command industry day, and if you want to work with DISA, do your homework on their acquisitions website. It provides so many resources for small businesses to mine and figure out what to do to grow their business pipeline.”