At DHS Procurement Innovation Lab, It’s Safe to Think Different

When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) surveyed its contracting officers to find out what was holding them back from being more innovative in acquisition efforts, the answer came back loud and clear: “Over 70 percent of our respondents cited fear and control resistance,” recalls Eric Cho, project lead for the agency’s Procurement Innovation Laboratory (PIL). “This was the No. 1 reason for not innovating in procurement processes.”

Fear of failure was holding everyone back, Cho said in an interview. The risks were too high – and the rewards too undefined. In short, taking chances and innovating wasn’t worth the risk.

Soraya CorreaDHS Chief Procurement Officer Soraya Correa could have viewed that as a systemic breakdown. Instead she saw an opportunity.

If the agency could create a safe zone where experimentation was safe, innovation could flourish and new ideas might sprout. Once proven and tested, those ideas could be further refined and then shared across the entire agency.

PIL was born, and within a year, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had recommended every agency stand up a similar test-bed.

To date, DHS’s PIL has completed nine projects and has another 13 active projects and, according to Cho, “about a dozen coming our way.”

The program works on two planes, Cho said. First, “we’re going to develop these techniques in this protected environment where people can try new things, learn from it and develop those techniques by actually doing it.” Then, once ideas are proven, the sharing starts.

“We say, hey, once you try these techniques in real projects, we want people to share that knowledge through webinars and training,” Cho explained. “That’s the core idea or con-op for the PIL.”

That’s happening now. The PIL has conducted 25 webinars to date to spread the word about lessons learned.

Projects range from complex procurements for critical needs to simple process reviews. OMB noted PIL had “cut procurement lead time by more than half for a competitively awarded, multi-million dollar, classified cyber security services contract for the Einstein Project.” In another effort, the lab helped clear a backlog of expired contracts that needed to be closed out – freeing contracting officers’ to focus more on new programs.

One critical focus for the PIL has been to streamline the front end of the contracting process — solicitation through evaluation and award.

“This is often viewed as one of the weakest links, just because it sometimes takes forever,” Cho said. “It takes more than six months or more than a year to award a contract. And the IT development cycle is so fast that taking more than six months is defeating the purpose. We want to align the cycle of technology with the pace that we can deliver contracts.”

The lab experimented with a variety of techniques, such as multi-stage down-selects where the agency can start work before a final award is made by both having more than one competitive contest en route to a final contract award, as well as technology demonstrations in which contractors are invited in to demonstrate a capability. Case in point: DHS asked competitors seeking to win its Flexible Agile Support for the Homeland (FLASH) program.

“As part of the evaluation, we say one of the most important factors would be for your team to come in and demonstrate technical capabilities or have an agile team to actually develop a software [program] within a four-hour window,” Cho said. “We’ve now done many acquisitions using that technique. Evaluators like it not only because it’s easier to evaluate, but because it gives a true insight into companies’ ability to do the job.”

Another innovation: The PIL worked with DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate to develop streamlined procedures for a Broad Agency Announcement solicitation designed to attract non-traditional industry partners. The lab developed a seven-page questionnaire based on those used by venture capitalists to develop interest in emerging businesses and used that in place of a conventional request for proposal. Those companies that drew interest were then invited in for 15-minute pitch – either in-person or via video-chat – after which participants were notified immediately whether they had made the final cut. Awards followed in 30 days or fewer.

Before launching the lab, DHS contracting officers might have been leery of any of these atypical procurement approaches.

“But under the PIL, you can take managed risks,” Cho said. “And if you fail, it is OK, because we learn from it.” His only rule: “Fail quickly.”

Lessons learned can be put to work coming up with another, better innovation. Successes also yield lessons, which are analyzed and ultimately shared. For now, DHS is only sharing within the agency, but eventually the techniques and teaching tools it’s developing be offered to others outside the agency, as well. Cho said at this stage, participants seem more able to be relaxed, comfortable and open if they are speaking within the relative confines of DHS, rather than among other large agencies. “We found people are much more comfortable asking questions when they know that it’s all DHS people and we’re working together,” he said.

Lessons are shared through live and archived webinars. To date, the lab has produced 20 programs, each about 90-minutes. “We cover the actual PIL projects with examples and cover various techniques, such as multistage down-selects, oral presentations or technical challenge exercises.” Each program includes a senior-level management message to drive home the idea that the push for innovation comes straight from the top.

It’s also clear to Cho that innovation is not a fashion trend or fire-and-forget activity, but something that must be honed and fueled forever. “It’s essentially continuous improvement and learning,” Cho said. “We try these new techniques, we have that team teach and share with others in DHS and then those others will try those techniques and improve. And then share and teach again. It’s a loop.”

For 2017, DHS procurement chief Correa aims to institutionalize innovation in acquisition. She challenged each DHS contracting activity to commit to reaching three goals:

  • Execute three PIL projects
  • Re-engineer at least one acquisition process
  • Present at least one PIL webinar

Change, as the saying goes, is hard. “Usually people are very hesitant,” Cho said. “They aren’t sure they want to try these new things. But, hey, once they try these programs … and see positive aspects, in terms of reducing their workloads and providing better outcomes, they become evangelists. They want to do more of this. And then their neighbors start to use these techniques, too.”

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