In the current fiscal landscape, we continue to see declining budgets to tackle ever increasing requirements and mission sets. The Air Force needs to be smarter in how we execute, driving the need for innovation in products and processes. The current CSAF has pushed the Squadron Innovation Funds to encourage and facilitate innovation at the lowest levels. While Squadron Innovation Funds aren’t guaranteed in future budgets, the good news is that there are resources available outside of SIF to tackle innovation. This paper will look at resourcing options that are available, how to identify and bring the right players to help shape requirements, distinguish the difference between fiscal law and policies and guidance, and how to identify the right resources for those requirements…all in an effort to get to “yes.”
“A vision without resources is an illusion” - Gen (ret) Steve Lorenz
Spark cells are typically comprised of bright, eager Airmen with a strong desire to solve problems in our Air Force. They have innovative ideas and are hungry to deliver value – motivation critical to invigorating Air Force culture and maneuvering its bureaucracy. However, desire and vision alone will not accomplish this objective. Resources are finite - this paper focuses on funding, but so are time and manpower - and easily outnumbered by a typical wing’s mission requirements. Successful spark cells:
Strategy should drive resources. Make sure your team reads the National Defense Strategy and National Military Strategy. Understand the global landscape and where your wing fits into that mission. Doing so elucidates your wing and MAJCOM commanders’ priorities…and, in turn, where the funding goes. If your innovative ideas align with these priorities you are much more likely to secure support and funding. At worst, you better understand where the wing is going and can shape future campaigns after these priorities.
Develop early and engaging partnerships with their comptroller, contracting, and legal teams. Successful spark cells maintain a close relationship with these entities. Doing so enables these organizations to help build a viable, legal path to ‘yes’ from an idea’s conception, rather than being brought in midstream where the potential for ‘no’ increases exponentially.
When necessary, dive into daunting subjects like federal appropriations law. Your comptroller team should be a partner, but sometimes personalities make progress difficult. When this happens, there are several ways to move forward. Using the chain of command or leveraging the Air Force innovation ecosystem are viable paths. Another proven option is bring your own research to the potential roadblock office…
Create Partners, not Roadblocks: FM/CONS/JA are often viewed as roadblocks to accomplishing an objective for Innovators. While these entities don’t have a reputation for helping Innovators, they are necessary partners to bring new technology into an organization. The more collaborative the relationship with this trifecta, the more success an Innovator is likely to have.
Increased Speed: Oftentimes end users come to this group with the solution instead of the problem and the solution is not possible due to financial, legal, or contractual limitations. By going to this group early with the problem and curating a solution together with the wing’s procurement experts, end users can drastically increase the flash to bang of ideas.
Increased Agility: This group can also increase the agility of the end user by enabling them to react to late-breaking opportunities. Whether that’s pushing an MOU through JA to partner with another base on an SBIR at the last minute, or to procure technology in the last few days before Close Out from a company that pre-competed their product on another base’s CSO.
Most Innovation efforts fail because FM/CONS/JA are not brought into the fold early and one of them has issues with the plan put together by non-acquisition professionals that kills the project.
Working through the administrivia of how to bring ideas to fruition is kind of like eating your broccoli. It isn’t always fun, but it is necessary. Understanding the distinction between fiscal laws, policies, and guidance and how to navigate that space is the difference between having an idea and making that idea a reality.
Understand the legal constraints of your funds. Once you’ve brought in FM and JA, you need enough knowledge on the mechanics to be able to ask the right questions to shapes ideas to an executable solution. Squadron Innovation Funds (SIF) and most other innovation funding mechanisms are appropriated by Congress and come with legal restrictions. Have your comptroller team walk you through the basics of the purpose, time, and amount statutes as well as the annual budget cycle. These will tell you when you should advocate for funding, and how to spend it legally and effectively once you receive it.
When executing at wing-level, most dollars you have at your disposal are 3400 or Operations and Maintenance funds. Generally speaking, O&M is used for the day-to-day operations of the wings, such as travel and supplies and equipment under $250K. Other appropriations exist and may be more appropriate to execute your ideas, especially if you are working to develop something new (3600 / Research and Development funds) or the items cost more than $250K (3080 / Other Procurement funds). While this is the general rule, there are gray areas and other nuances that may be an option to get ideas funded. Your FM and JA functional communities can help you find the right answer.
- Spark Cells/FM/CONS/JA/Wg Leaderships