PlugFest Plus aims to speed tech innovation, acquisition

The Air Force’s PlugFest Plus event adds a contracting component to a technology demonstration.

The Air Force is testing a new acquisition approach that would enable vendors to have contracts in hand just weeks after demonstrating their potential solutions. The approach comes in the form of PlugFest Plus (PFP), an event similar to other PlugFests but with one major difference: the contracting angle.

“Regular” PlugFests give companies a chance to test equipment or software interoperability with standards and give live demonstrations of existing capabilities. They also provide essential feedback to both agencies and the vendor community whose products are tested at the event.

PFP is a component of the Air Force’s Bending the Cost Curve Initiative, which aims to improve dialog with industry so it  “can better understand how processes, procedures and some of the choices we make can inadvertently contribute to rising costs, the stifling of innovation and slow processes,” said Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James in a Jan. 15 speech at the Atlantic Council.

“Under our new PlugFest Plus approach, we will put in place a mechanism whereby a vendor could walk away with a contract just a few weeks after an event,” James said. “We accomplish this by combining these industry events with an Army acquisition model, which minimizes barriers for companies to participate.”

“They’re trying to expand their access to talent and to innovation through nontraditional means and through nontraditional defense companies,” said Dave Chesebrough, president of the Association for Enterprise Information (AFEI), which hosted the first PFP on Jan. 20 at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

“So, the notion is taking an industry best practice – a PlugFest– and coupling that with an Other Transaction Authority (OTA) acquisition instrument. As a result of the testing done in the virtual environment, [the Air Force] can determine whether they might want to further fund some prototype developments.”

Congress has approved the Defense Department to use OTAs for decades in order “to expand the defense supply base through non-traditional contracts for research, development, testing and evaluation (RDT&E) activities,” according to AFEI. “OTA contracts are not subject to federal acquisition regulations (FAR) or any other body of regulation. This flexibility is intended to enable the Defense Department to overcome bureaucratic barriers that often prevent non-traditional defense contractors from pursuing government work.”

The Air Force tied PFP to its Distributed Common Ground System, which produces intelligence information from sensor-collected data. Vendors can virtually test their solutions by registering to use the Hanscom milCloud, an instantiation of the Defense Information Systems Agency’s CONS3RT cloud management software. The Hanscom milCloud is being used as a PFP hosting environment in which vendors can conduct code writing, scripting, debugging, various testing and certification compatibility. 

By combining PlugFests with OTAs, the acquisition process moves faster. “It speeds things up by converting what is generally considered to be a government acquisition through a neutral third party into a commercial acquisition so that things are not as bureaucratic and the processes can happen much more quickly,” Chesebrough said.

There’s been no proof of cost savings yet, but “it does increase the speed to capability, the speed to which they can get access to capabilities to try out in their systems,” he added.

At this first PFP, about 150 attendees perused the showcases of 10 vendors and a team of GMU students. Government attendees came from DISA, the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, among others. Industry representatives in attendance included Booz Allen Hamilton, Software AG and Lockheed Martin.

“The Air Force generally liked it,” Chesebrough said. “They thought it was a positive first step in an industry day format.” There was no OTA-type acquisition associated with this one. It was simply a get-together to discuss the concept” and get industry feedback on the format.

On the vendor side, some are skeptical of working outside the traditional acquisition processes, while others view this as an opportunity for innovation.

“They were just sort of testing the water,” Chesebrough said. “I think their reaction was primarily positive, but they’d like to see whether the Air Force is able to make good on this whole idea of a PlugFest environment” that includes a process for making awards to the participants.

The Air Force hope it will increase competition, drive down costs and to increase innovation. “If this event proves successful, we will take steps to evolve the process to other Air Force applications,” James said.

The Air Force would like the next PFP to be held in May at Langley Air Force Base. It would require vendors to develop enterprise solutions to automate information redaction in support of country-specific intelligence products, according to an announcement on FedBizOpps

Prototype contracts resulting from that PFP could be awarded through the OTA contract vehicle that the C5 Consortium has in place with the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny Aresenal. 

Other government entities that have been involved in PlugFests include the Transportation Department, which holds Connected Vehicle PlugFests. Additionally, the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association and the Multi-Agency Collaboration Environment formed a special interest group dedicated to PlugFests.

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