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Doing Business with DHS: An Open Letter to Nick Nayak

Dear Nick:

I have enjoyed hearing you talk on several occasions over the past few months. A continuing (and welcomed) theme of your presentations has been the importance of maintaining a dialogue with all Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stakeholders, including the private sector. You have talked about changing the “culture” of the DHS procurement and acquisition system – to make it more transparent and to ensure confidence in the process. Your messages have been well received in the audiences where I was privileged to sit. Unfortunately, those messages do not seem fully to have permeated DHS – yet.

My specific concern today is triggered by an event that was labeled as a Biowatch Gen3 Industry Day held by the Office of Health Affairs on Monday, September 12, 2011. Unlike other DHS Industry Day sessions, which have been substantively informative, procedurally interactive and programatically insightful, this event was a complete waste of time for almost everyone there.

I suspect that for the government participants as well as for the 40+ private sector attendees, many of whom flew to DC on a high-anxiety day like 9-11 to get to this event, they must have left the Industry Day thinking, “Why did we come to this lecture?”

At the outset, attendees were told that no oral questions would be entertained from the audience, although cards were available for the submission of written questions. There was no commitment that answers would be provided. Further, attendees were admonished not to embarrass themselves by walking up to government officials and asking questions that would force the federal employee to say, “I cannot answer your question.”

Then for the next 40 minutes or so, the three government officials, including the program manager who was likely chosen for his subject matter expertise, read word-for-word every single word on the PowerPoint slides they presented. That’s right – they read the slides verbatim, as if they were robots, and we were illiterate buffoons.

Since the Industry Day slides will be posted on the FedBizOpps website, allowing interested people to read it for themselves, I simply cannot understand why the well-meaning and very friendly DHS folks leading this event felt constrained to engage in a “check-the-box” exercise. And that is all that it was – a “check-the-box” exercise that treated attendees as if they were idiots.

There was no “new” value added by holding this event. The information will be available on the DHS web site. There was, however, plenty of wasted time and money expended by the private sector representatives who showed up to be subjected to a monologue.

One reason this approach is so discomfiting is because other components of DHS (e.g., Customs and Border Protection) follow a different model. I’ve attended DHS Industry Day events where audience participation was solicited. Questions and answers were recorded and transcribed for people who could not attend. Presenters talked “with” the audience rather than “to” them.

Had you been at the OHA BioWatch Gen3 event this week, I believe you would have been mortified. I want to believe you would have intervened to stop it. I also want to believe that the “change in culture” you are trying to achieve in the DHS community can, in fact, be accomplished. Finally, I want to believe that you are looking for examples of good actions that should be replicated and of bad actions that should not be repeated.

That is why I am writing this letter to you. I want to believe that you can make a difference that will help make our country safer.

There are many of us who are willing to help you. Just please don’t subject us to another “shut-up-and listen” style Industry Day.

Your friend,

David Olive

David Olive focuses his blogging primarily on the “business of homeland security” — the interaction of the private sector with the Department of Homeland Security and other national security agencies. Read More