They work on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. They work just about everywhere. So why not short videos to pitch ideas to Defense Department program managers and contracting officers? That is the idea behind the year-old Tradewinds Project under the DoD’s chief digital and artificial intelligence office. Now there is a new development at Tradewinds. It is how to apply AI to contract writing. For more on this, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Tradewinds execution lead, Bonnie Evangelista.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And let’s talk about this year old effort on videos, and just to get a progress report, how many videos have been presented and what are you generally getting in from vendors and what types of products are they pitching in this manner?

Bonnie Evangelista So like you said, as of Nov. 1, we will be a year old. We are somewhere in the range, and someone’s going to probably slap me for not knowing my numbers off the top of my head. But we’re somewhere in the range of over 150 videos in what we call the Tradewinds Solutions marketplace, but we’ve assessed somewhere close to 400 videos. So you can kind of get a sense of the ratio there of what’s coming in versus what’s staying in and what’s not making it in. Outside of that, to me, it’s one of the coolest ways we’re trying to lower barriers to entry for industry. And rather than asking for technical proposals, even flick sheets or white papers or if you’re familiar with quad charts, we’re actually aligning with, I think, what industry is used to on the commercial side, which is just a product pitch. It’s very closely aligned to a venture capitalist pitch that you, if you’ve seen Shark Tank before, it’s not quite that edgy maybe and quick, but we’re asking for the same things. What is your solution and what problem are you solving? That’s like the first minute of a shark tank pitch. And then we also want to know why, like what’s the magnitude for you solving my problem and what makes you different in your market? Why are you innovative or unique or what are you doing differently that maybe we should understand? I love that approach because it just gets away from the entire, I don’t know, industry of proposal writing. And it gives, I think, industry and easier, especially startups and small businesses, an easier mechanism to try to break in that government front door.

Tom Temin And do you get the sense from the videos that people have done their homework because you have specific missions, there are specific requirements that are developed by the armed services and so on. So they’re not just quote unquote, shooting in the dark with these.

Bonnie Evangelista Right. And I think you kind of get a sense of that when you see what the ratio is versus what we’re getting in for assessment versus what’s actually staying in, because a lot of people aren’t doing their homework. I think they’re assuming it’s just like any other video pitch that they might have done before. And like you said, we have very specific questions. So if you are answering or addressing the questions, you’re not going to make it. It’s not so arbitrary that everybody gets in. But we do have an established protocol that we’re asking the industry to pay attention to, and then creating videos now it’s just as easy as texting on your phone. You can use an app on your phone to do it. So it’s less about production quality and it’s more about addressing the questions and convincing us that I’m going to use a cyber term that you’re not selling vaporware.

Tom Temin Sure. Well, what happens if you say, wow, this is really good? Again, not the production value, but the information in that video? What happens next to when you like?

Bonnie Evangelista Congratulations, welcome you’re in the marketplace. So what does that mean if you’re in the marketplace? Because we have gone through, I would say, painstakingly diligence to ensure that I’m going to call it our solicitation methodology and execution is aligned with regulation and statutory requirements. Vendors now who are in the marketplace have gone through a competitive assessment process for multiple authorities. And by checking that competition box, you now have a mechanism to receive or potentially get a government contract. So someone like me, a practitioner on the government side who is supporting a government buyer, has the ability to do business directly with you for your solution, not for anything for your solution. This is a product and services pitch, and we can do business directly with you on the basis of competition because of that published process that we were just talking about. And essentially if you’re determined to have technical merit against that process and against the criteria that we’ve published, then you’re in. And again, we’ve met the competition standard for multiple authorities. So now we have an ability to do business.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Bonnie Evangelista, the execution lead for the tradewinds initiative under the Defense Department’s chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence office. But essentially, why the video? Why can’t they just call you up on a Zoom chat? I mean, what is the advantage of the small short video, other than it feels cool like kind of the vernacular in social media?

Bonnie Evangelista For us, it was not just the most modern way to communicate right now, but it’s easier to consume like as a consumer of the video. From a government buyer perspective, there’s a little bit more of a ease of adoption hurdle we don’t have to go through if we are just telling people, Hey, you just need to watch a five minute video pitch or like five or six of these video pitches rather than reading pages of technical proposals or other information that again, would maybe be less of a draw for people.

Tom Temin And how are the production values, by the way? I mean, some of the big contractors have full fledged broadcast grade studios in them. But I wonder if they have the savvy to maybe not use them to try to not snow you, you know, with production value.

Bonnie Evangelista Yeah, I think we’ve seen quite a range. Honestly, when you open up the aperture, you get to see how creative people are. I’ve seen people videotaping them, demoing a product like from a phone and overlaying some text or some other images to kind of show us what’s going on. And then I’ve seen some really high quality videos that definitely look professionally produced. And honestly, as nice as that is, and of course that is the submitters discretion as to whether like, how did they want to present themselves within their means and whatnot. At the end of the day, the most comments I get from people are really about the content, like, Oh, that solution does or does not really align with my mission set or something, and there’s less commentary about the production quality.

Tom Temin All right. And let’s get to the topic of artificial intelligence in contract writing, because that’s a challenge across DoD, really across government, because of so many clauses that are required in federal contracts. But they’re not all required in all contracts. On the other hand, if you leave out a crucial one, you can really have trouble. And it’s been really difficult time to develop commercial contract writing systems, and there’s been some spectacular failures of that. So tell us about the AI in contract writing and what are you doing there?

Bonnie Evangelista We have a prototype. It’s been almost 18 months now going on, two years that we’ve been prototyping this capability. And it honestly started as a proof of concept. We really didn’t have an idea of what it was going to look like on the other side of this. So when I initially issued a challenge for show me something cool in AI and contract writing, and show me like what the art of the possible is, most companies responded with, I will build you whatever you want. And remember, I don’t know what I want. I wanted an idea of where we could maybe break some glass or push the boundaries. And me not being a technical person, I was hoping to take maybe something that’s already out there and see if we can modify it. And there was one company, though, that had started thinking about this problem, I would say, on the proposal writing industry side. And they said, We can show you what we’re doing and where the technology is going. And so that started with, this was about nine months before OpenAI released ChatGPT and I had no idea what generative AI was. And my first introduction to that was 45 days into the project.

Bonnie Evangelista There was a MVP demo and they took a very descriptive title, like a project title, and it generated two paragraphs of text to help us define what the problem statement for the project might be. And that immediately took us down a path of how do we immediately adopt this type of capability into our business workflow, where we’re working with customers to define what their mission gaps or mission needs are. Because my team in particular is leveraging non-power based authority such as other transaction realities. That’s typically the place where we’re not defining requirements, we’re moreso defining problems so that industry can come to us with the solutions. And so the generative AI technology part is really helping us increase velocity in our teams because it kind of streamlines and improves our ability to articulate and create language around something that we need more clarity on. Because a lot of times, even when we’re working with our customers, having a blank sheet of paper and us telling them, tell us what your problem is, can be a little scary or a little daunting. And having generative AI act as like a junior writing assistant and take a best guess based on some human input, what it is we’re looking for and then us continuing to refine it has increased our ability tremendously to reduce, I would say, those lead times going into like us publishing something that industry would consume on the solicitation side. So I’ve no kidding been able to take a process that could take weeks or months with the right people in the room around like this tool and us editing in real time together. We can do it in 30 minutes and come up with a problem statement. Then the tool also helps us generate structured text on the back end so that we can publish announcements very, very quickly.

Tom Temin So it’s more than really contract writing. Technically, it sounds like it’s more coming to a meeting of the minds agreement type of application.

Bonnie Evangelista Absolutely. I will say that’s where we started. Because once I saw what it was capable of, I said, I can use this to day to do this. And now we’re trying to figure out where else can we leverage and optimize what’s happening here into contract writing. So that’s kind of the exploration and the journey we’re on right now.