Recognizing the importance of small businesses to the government IT community, ACT-IAC sponsored the 6th annual Small Business Conference called ConnectSB: Accelerate and Achive earlier this week. The event focused on the unique needs and benefits of small businesses and also tried to promote the value of small businesses to the government and large corporations seeking small business partners.

A frequent theme of government conferences like these is innovation, which has come to mean doing more (work) with less (federal employees).

But I decided what this conference should actually be called is “doing more (work) with more (talent).”

The idea for the suggestion came during the federal agency workshops part of the conference where attendees got to hear from three of nine leading agencies. I elected to listen to the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security – ICE , and Department of Veterans Affairs. During those sessions individuals from the CIO office, the program office, the acquisition office and the small business office, provided a panel that presented their experience and then answered questions.

One of the issues small businesses face is how to get greater insight into the challenges agencies face in order to tailor their solutions.

One recommendation I made to all three panels is to make their IT problems and sample data sets available on their web sites, just like an App Challenge. Then, offer a way to post a link to the applications that developers produce, provide a 30-minute demonstration session to the most successful applications, and mentor those successful application developers in the process required to compete for government work.

This way the considerable talent that has been attracted by App Challenges will begin to augment the current talent pool for actual government work.

The HHS, DHS-ICE, and VA all said they were willing to try the idea–and in fact are developing approaches that support this idea.

The VA, for instance, already offers 30-minute appointments one day week for vendors that want to take advantage of the opportunity to show something innovative that actually works.

The HHS recently had a program office that wanted to expose some data in an application and tried a cloud application from The application showed the data was not good enough for a worthwhile application so the project was killed. The program office initially thought it was a failure, but the CIO’s office thought it was a success because it was a best practice example of “start small and fail fast” in that no major expenditures were made for infrastructure that was then not used.

The DHS-ICE said they are already using agile development and would be interested in this as possibly even more agile development.

These lessons are hardly new. A group of federal IT specialist created a community sandbox for developing web-services, SOA and semantic web applications for the Federal CIO Council during 2003-2008 that did this very thing, with a connection to the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Innovation Research process, but not to the regular procurement process. Presently, the government uses so-called goals, multi-awards, and set-asides to make sure a certain percentage of government contract dollars are given to small businesses.

I think that NASA CIO Linda Cureton summarized the situation best during the closing panel discussion. She used a shipping analogy of large ships that are slow to maneuver (agencies and large companies with deep-seated cultural traditions and legacy systems), smaller ships that are more easily maneuvered around or which aid the bigger ships (smaller agencies and businesses), and fun little yachts that can quickly zip in and out and around everything else (developers on a crowd-sourcing mission)–all creating an ecosystem where everyone has an important role to play in improving government IT and participating in getting government IT work.

That in many ways creates a picture for how it is possible to be “doing more (work) but with more (talent).”