The BWI Business District is home to the National Security Agency (NSA), the area’s largest intelligence agency. NSA is home to America’s codemakers and codebreakers and is located within the Ft Meade footprint.
NSA provides sensitive security information to U.S. decision makers and military leaders. The core mission is to protect U.S. national security systems and produce foreign signals intelligence information. By its very nature, what NSA does requires a high degree of confidentiality.
This issue of confidentiality creates an interesting challenge to business people who are interested in doing business with the agency.
NSA operates very differently from most other federal agencies with regard to purchasing and procurement. In the majority of federal agencies, the procurement process is fairly transparent in that if one knows where to look, budgets, forecasts and posted contract opportunities can be located.
NSA operates in a much more closed, or secure, business environment. For NSA and other agencies in the intelligence sector, it is impossible to publicly advertise budgets, forecasts and contract opportunities because doing so would make very sensitive national-security information public knowledge and threaten the effectiveness of the agency and national security.
However, it is not impossible to obtain contracts from NSA. Many firms in the BWI business district are well-established NSA vendors. How did they do it? Some were started by former NSA employees who left government service to become business owners. Other firms that did not have such an “inside” advantage were able to navigate the secretive processes and through strong differentiators and persistence, eventually found appropriate contract opportunities on which to bid.
In recent years, NSA has become more open to new businesses and established a proactive vendor program to address both large and small businesses.
The NSA’s recently redesigned web site (www.nsa.gov) has also incorporated a state-of-the-art vendor registration process called the Acquisition Resource Center (ARC). This mandatory business registry database serves as a one-stop source for acquisition information. It also serves as a market research tool for NSA personnel. Contracting officers, program managers, business managers, technical directors and small business specialists use the ARC Business Registry to identify potential vendors for specific acquisition requirements.
It is important to realize that becoming a vendor at NSA is a long, drawn-out process. It is the vendor’s responsibility to learn the processes needed and follow them to the letter. As stated in an agency briefing confirmation: “Whether your firm is successful may depend on an understanding of security requirements and the intelligence community mentality. Breaking through the secrecy that surrounds the NSA is a task few members of the business community navigate successfully without guidance.”
The Office of Small Business Programs at NSA is charged with offering that guidance and ensuring that small businesses of all types including HUBZone, veteran, women and disadvantaged owned businesses have the opportunity to participate in contracting opportunities. The current stated goal for all small business contracts is 26% of all contracts, with last year’s total actually reaching 30%, exceeding the target goal.
Be aware that all vendors must also meet the security clearance requirements needed for the projects. Fortunately, NSA has instituted a unique program called the Provisional Industrial Security Approval (PISA) Sponsorship Program. While not an easy program to enter, is still quicker than the normal Defense Security System (DSS) Program. The PISA security clearance process requires a “sponsor” to recommend a vendor. Once this recommendation is validated and the application approved, the vendor then has access to certain levels within NSA in order to market their business.
Current NSA contractors and even competitors may actually be a great source of business, a teaming partner or even a prime or subcontractor at NSA. Building relationships with current contractors may be one of the least complicated strategies to market entry at NSA.
Networking is a critical step in doing business with NSA and all agencies in the Intelligence Community. It is a very good way to meet end-users in an appropriate environment. It is also the best method to use to find current contractors at NSA and start building relationships with them. Two organizations that can help in this regard are AFCEA and the Maryland Marketing Group.
One of the best ways to open the secretive door to success at NSA is to participate in the NSA sponsored bi-weekly briefing: “Preparing for Success: A Start-up Guide to Working with NSA.” This meeting is designed to assist new vendors, large and small, in learning about doing business with NSA. Registration is required in advance and operated on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, go to www.nsa.gov and click on the “Business” tab.