Defense Digital Service’s ‘cease and desist’ letter to industry group symptom of larger communications problems

Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

The Defense Department’s problems with its commercial cloud procurement known as JEDI really can be traced back to one thing: Poor communication with industry.

In talking with industry experts and contractors, all the concerns and anxieties over the Pentagon’s goal of a single cloud award or the question of whether the DoD is copying Amazon’s secret cloud for the CIA and the intelligence community could be alleviated with more in-depth and hearty discussions.

Advertisement

And what may be at the heart of this issue are the “experts” from the Defense Digital Service running the initiative, who observers say need to be more open to ideas and less egotistical.

A perfect case-in-point of DDS letting its ego get in its way is its treatment of John Weiler and the IT-Acquisition Advisory Council (IT-AAC) he leads.

Weiler and the IT-AAC, which includes a who’s who of former DoD technology and acquisition executives such as Marv Langston, a former Navy chief information officer and Kevin Carroll, the former Army Program Executive Officer-Enterprise Information Systems (PEO-EIS) director, received a “cease and desist” letter from DDS and Tim Van Name, its deputy director.

In an email to Weiler from Jan. 26, Van Name said the “Defense Digital Service (DDS) team feel harassed by the insistent calls and messages they are receiving from you, including on their personal phones and accounts.”

Yes, Weiler is known in the federal IT and acquisition community for both his passion for fixing federal IT problems, as well as for his almost obsessive need to make waves and see controversy in almost every corner.

When you mention Weiler’s name to current and former DoD executives, it comes with both an uncomfortable laugh and an understanding that Weiler’s doggedness is appreciated — up to a point.

At the same time, IT-AAC and his for-profit company the Interoperability Clearinghouse have provided valuable assistance to a host of agencies, including the Navy, the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office, that has helped fix troubled programs.

The back story of why Van Name decided to write a “cease and desist” letter is not entirely clear.

DoD spokeswoman Heather Babb refused to answer specific questions about Van Name’s letter, sending only a general statement about DoD’s work with industry around JEDI.

“The department is committed to a transparent process and a full and open competition to acquire a cloud services solution through the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) Cloud Initiative. The department has been engaging with industry throughout this process to ensure it develops the best cloud solution for the warfighter,” Babb wrote. “The department appreciates industry’s participation in the draft solicitation process. DoD is confident that these inputs will help us refine and clarify the requirement so that we can provide the best capability for the warfighter.”

Babb highlighted the same statistics about JEDI that we’ve seen over the last few months — more than 1,000 questions from 46 companies on the first draft request for proposal, a round two of questions is under consideration for the version 2 of the draft RFP and more than 900 attendees at the industry day in March.

And when Weiler pressed Van Name for more details on the alleged harassment, he received no answer.

I called Weiler to get his side of the story. He said starting in November he engaged DDS, offering lessons learned from their experiences with cloud acquisition.

“They were receptive,” he said. “We told them things like leverage standards, and then focus on the outcomes and what problems you are trying to solve, and don’t be overly prescriptive. We said we can help you when you are ready.”

Weiler sent DDS a white paper on agile acquisition a few weeks later. Weiler said he remembers Sharon Woods, the DDS general counsel, telling him at an event to give her a call to discuss IT-AAC’s ideas further.

So over about a 30-day period, Weiler said he called the DDS office about 12 times, called DDS executives’ personal cellphones based on the recommendation of a former digital service employee who said that’s the main way they communicate, and sent a handful of emails.

“It’s hard to get anyone to answer the phone at DDS. And when I did, it seemed like no one was getting the messages,” Weiler said. “I’m expecting a call back and wasn’t getting one so I called back. I followed up on a communication thread where there was apparent interest in IT-AAC’s help.”

Weiler admitted he was maybe making more phone calls then he normally would, but he said the lack of response from DDS, even someone who said “thanks but no thanks” was all he was looking for.

“I was trying to find out information and get an answer. I was asking for transparency,” he said. “I was never told they weren’t interested and to stop calling. I just got the letter. If they would’ve called and told me to go away, I would’ve sent one final letter explaining IT-AAC’s concerns, and then gone away.”

Weiler, obviously, was quite upset over the “cease and desist” letter. When I asked others in the federal community if they’ve ever heard of DoD or any agency telling an industry organization to only go through the press office with communications going forward, no one could remember such an instance.

And it’s that claim by Van Name that Weiler was “harassing” DDS is the symptom of DoD’s larger problem with the JEDI procurement of thinking they know everything already.

An industry expert who is following JEDI closely said DoD could’ve been more forthcoming with its plans for JEDI, and there is no reason why it hasn’t.

“It either has been a conscious decision or a result of factors that we can’t see — inexperience or incompetence,” said the industry expert, who requested anonymity in order not to hurt their relationship with DoD. “The lack of answers in the Q&As with the draft RFP leaves you wondering why. Do they don’t know the answer, or do they know the answer and industry will not like it so they don’t want to give it, or is it something else? DoD has done the same thing with some past procurements like the Air Force tanker where they didn’t answer questions and it caused a lot of challenges for industry.”

Roger Waldron, the president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, said it’s unclear why DoD wasn’t more willing to engage with industry.

“I think DoD’s efforts created a ‘check the box’ impression because between industry day and draft RFPs their efforts were not optimal. They put out the draft RFP and then gave companies two weeks to respond, and then many of the answers to many questions were just ‘noted’ instead of giving more details, that left a lot of people wondering,” he said. “Then with the next draft RFP, DoD gave another two-week timeframe, which also was too short. It’s not a textbook example that you’d use in an acquisition training course for how to run a large procurement.”

And now DoD’s communication shortcomings are almost forcing Congress to get involved.

First in the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill, lawmakers asked DoD for a report to justify its approach to JEDI. DoD is expected to deliver that report by May 7.

The latest example of Congressional concern is a new provision in the House version of the 2019 Defense Authorization bill.

“Prohibits the Department of Defense from using 50 percent of the funds authorized to be appropriated for the JEDI cloud initiative, until the Secretary of Defense provides Congress with information sufficient to conduct oversight of the acquisition,” the chairman’s version of the NDAA states.

The industry expert said while the NDAA provision looks like a big deal, by the time the bill becomes law, JEDI will be well down the path of award and/or protest making the provision almost moot.

“People want answers to questions, and at the end of the day the stakes are so high that competitors want to understand the framework, the innovation, the security and how DoD will foster continuing competitions,” Waldron said. “All are fair questions and the lack of communication on answers, and the lack of a public cost-benefit analysis of single award versus a multi-award approach created a lot of the concerns.”

There are few people who believe JEDI will ever get off the ground. Either it will crumble under its own weight, get hung up in protests for the next year and eventually just go away or Congress will ramp up its pressure forcing DoD to make changes.

And all of this time, resources and effort could still be saved if DoD just opens up to be more forthcoming and hold meaningful meetings with industry.

Read more of the Reporter’s Notebook.