For more than 20 years, federal law has required agencies to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions unless there’s a compelling reason to use a government off-the-shelf (GOTS) solution. That’s because commercial vendors deliver the most effective, feature-rich offerings at the most competitive price. In fact, that’s why solution providers are in business. It’s their skillset. You wouldn’t expect a technology company to know how to manage a federal agency, just as you wouldn’t expect an agency to know how to build technology solutions.
Furthermore, when federal agencies try to “do it themselves,” unintended consequences happen. Here are four ways that the GOTS acquisition process leads to products that fail to measure up to offerings from commercial industry:
It takes a long time to procure, deliver, and deploy GOTS solutions. Developing a GOTS solution almost always involves “reinventing the wheel” – going through the same extensive research and development cycles that commercial vendors have already been through to field their offerings. The acquisition cycle for commercial solutions is shortened by all of that work having already been done in the course of developing the base product. The extended development cycle of GOTS products delays their deployment, which slows the mission and frustrates the user community.
What you end up with isn’t always up with the times. When a GOTS product finally arrives, it often fails to meet the expectations of the user community. That’s because it reflects requirements that were gathered months or even years earlier, back when the project was first conceived. But commercial offerings are always being refined to meet the needs of users in the current marketplace. There’s usually a product roadmap that reflects ongoing customer input. That’s the way private vendors succeed, by ensuring that their products deliver the capabilities their users demand.
It’s still true: there’s no such thing as a free lunch. GOTS products are often touted as being “free.” It may be true that other agencies can use a GOTS product without cost once the first agency has developed it. But there are other lifecycle acquisition costs involved, including unique services, customization, and maintenance requirements for each installation or deployment. Agencies that use COTS solutions benefit from the offerings’ regular upgrades, patches, releases, and maintenance, which are largely factored into the investment.
Keeping up with technology trends isn’t GOTS’s strong suit. A GOTS team doesn’t have the same incentive for innovation that commercial developers have. They’ll almost certainly run behind what the market expects. Technology companies earn their living by listening to customers and building solutions that meet and even anticipate their needs. That means keeping up with the latest trends and developments in order to deliver solutions whose value has been proven under real-world conditions in the competitive marketplace.
The U.S. deputy secretary of defense has warned against taking the GOTS path, saying that “a custom, federated approach is a trap.” It’s a costly, time-consuming trap as well, serving the best interests of neither the agency nor the taxpayer. Federal agencies can accomplish their missions more effectively, and more cost-effectively, when they choose proven commercial solutions.
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