Recognizing the Need for Innovation in Acquisition
The President’s Management Agenda lays out ambitious plans for the federal government to modernize information technology, prepare its future workforce and improve the way it manages major acquisitions.
These are among 14 cross-agency priority goals on which the administration is focused as it seeks to jettison outdated legacy systems and embrace less cumbersome ways of doing business.
Increasingly, federal IT managers are recognizing the need for innovation in acquisition, not just technology modernization. What exactly will it take to modernize an acquisition system bound by the 1,917-page Federal Acquisition Regulation? Federal acquisition experts say the challenges have less to do with changing those rules than with human behavior – the incentives, motivations and fears of people who touch federal acquisition – from the acquisition professionals themselves to mission owners and government executives and overseers.
“If you want a world-class acquisition system that is responsive to customer needs, you have to be able to use the right tool at the right time,” says Mathew Blum, associate administrator in the Office of Federal Procurement Policy at the Office of Management and Budget. The trouble isn’t a lack of options, he said at the American Council for Technology’s ACT/IAC Acquisition Excellence conference March 27. Rather he said, it is lack of bandwidth and fear of failure that conspire to keep acquisition pros from trying different acquisition strategies.
Risk aversion is a critical issue, agreed Greg Capella, deputy director of the National Technology Information Service at the Department of Commerce. “If you look at what contracting officers get evaluated on, it’s the number of protests, or the number of small business awards [they make],” he said. “It’s not how many successful procurements they’ve managed or what were the results for individual customers.”
Yet there are ways to break through the fear of failure, protests and blame that can paralyze acquisition shops and at the same time save time, save money and improve mission outcomes. Here are four:
- Outside Help
The General Services Administration’s (GSA) 18F digital services organization focuses on improving public facing services and internal systems using commercial-style development approaches. Its agile software development program employs a multidisciplinary team incentivized to work together and produce results quickly, said Alla Goldman Seifert, acting director of GSA’s Office of Acquisition in the Technology Transformation Service.
Her team helps other federal agencies tackle problems quickly and incrementally using an agile development approach. “We bring in a cross-functional team of human-centered design and technical experts, as well as acquisition professionals — all of whom work together to draft a statement of work and do the performance-based contracting for agile software acquisition,” she said.
Acquisition planning may be the most important part of that process. Seifert said 18F learned a lot since launching its Agile Blanket Purchase Agreement. The group suffered seven protests in three venues. “But since then, every time we iterate, we make sure we right-size the scope and risk we are taking.” She added by approaching projects in a modular way, risks are diminished and outcomes improved. That’s a best practice that can be replicated throughout government.
“We’re really looking at software and legacy IT modernization: How do you get a mission critical program off of a mainframe? How do you take what is probably going to be a five-year modernization effort and program for it, plan for it and budget for it?” Seifert asked.
GSA experiments in other ways, as well. For example, 18F helped agencies leverage the government’s Challenge.gov platform, publishing needs and offering prizes to the best solutions. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) currently seeks ideas for more efficient use of the radio frequency spectrum in its Spectrum Collaboration Challenge. DARPA will award up to $3.5 million to the best ideas. “Even [intelligence community components] have really enjoyed this,” Seifert said. “It really is a good way to increase competition and lower barriers to entry.”
- Coaching and Assistance
Many program acquisition officers cite time pressure and lack of bandwidth to learn new tools as barriers to innovation. It’s a classic chicken-and-egg problem: How do you find the time to learn and try something new?
The Department of Homeland Security’s Procurement Innovation Lab (PIL) was created to help program offices do just that – and then capture and share their experience so others in DHS can leverage the results. The PIL provides coaching, advice and asks only that the accumulated knowledge is shared by webinars and other internal means.
“How do people find time to do innovative stuff?” asked Eric Cho, project lead for PIL. “Either one: find ways to do less, or two: borrow from someone else’s work.” Having a coach to help is also critical, and that’s where his organization comes in.
In less than 100 days, the PIL recently helped a Customs and Border Protection team acquire a system to locate contraband such as drugs hidden in walls, by using a high-end stud finder, Cho said. The effort was completed in less than half the time of an earlier, unsuccessful effort.
Acquisition cycle time can be saved in many ways, from capturing impressions immediately, via group evaluations after oral presentations, to narrowing the competitive field by means of a down-select before trade-off analyses on qualified finalists. Reusing language from similar solicitations can also save time, he said. “This is not an English class.”
Even so, the successful PIL program still left middle managers in program offices a little uncomfortable, DHS officials acknowledged – the natural result of trying something new. Key to success is having high-level commitment and support for such experiments. DHS’s Chief Procurement Officer Soraya Correa has been an outspoken advocate of experimentation and the PIL. That makes a difference.
“It all comes back to the culture of rewarding compliance, rather than creativity,” said OMB’s Blum. “We need to figure out how we build incentives to encourage the workforce to test and adopt new and better ways to do business.”
- Outsourcing for Innovation
Another approach is to outsource the heavy-lifting to another better skilled or better experienced government entity to execute on a specialized need, such as hiring GSA’s 18F to manage agile software development.
Similarly, outsourcing to GSA’s FEDSIM is a proven strategy for efficiently managing and executing complex, enterprise-scale programs with price tags approaching $1 billion or more. FEDSIM combines both acquisition and technical expertise to manage such large-scale projects, and execute quickly by leveraging government-wide acquisition vehicles such as Alliant or OASIS, which have already narrowed the field of viable competitors.
“The advantage of FEDSIM is that they have experience executing these large-scale complex IT programs — projects that they’ve done dozens of times — but that others may only face once in a decade,” says Michael McHugh, staff vice president within General Dynamics IT’s Government Wide Acquisition Contract (GWAC) Center. The company supports Alliant and OASIS among other GWACs. “They understand that these programs shouldn’t be just about price, but in identifying the superior technical solution within a predetermined reasonable price range. There’s a difference.”
For program offices looking for guidance rather than to outsource procurement, FEDSIM is developing an “Express Platform” with pre-defined acquisition paths that depend on the need and acquisition templates designed. These streamline and accelerate processes, reduce costs and enable innovation. It’s another example of sharing best practices across government agencies.
- Minimizing Risk
OMB’s Blum said he doesn’t blame program managers for feeling anxious. He gets that while they like the concept of innovation, they’d rather someone else take the risk. He also believes the risks are lower than they think.
“If you’re talking about testing something new, the downside risk is much less than the upside gain,” Blum said. “Testing shouldn’t entail any more risk than a normal acquisition if you’re applying good acquisition practices — if you’re scoping it carefully, sharing information readily with potential sources so they understand your goals, and by giving participants a robust debrief,” he added. Risks can be managed.
Properly defining the scope, sounding out experts, defining goals and sharing information cannot happen in a vacuum, of course. Richard Spires, former chief information officer at DHS, and now president of Learning Tree International, said he could tell early if projects were likely to succeed or fail based on the level of teamwork exhibited by stakeholders.
“If we had a solid programmatic team that worked well with the procurement organization and you could ask those probing questions, I’ll tell you what: That’s how you spawn innovation,” Spires said. “I think we need to focus more on how to build the right team with all the right stakeholders: legal, security, the programmatic folks, the IT people running the operations.”
Tony Cothron, vice president with General Dynamics IT’s Intelligence portfolio agreed, saying it takes a combination of teamwork and experience to produce results.
“Contracting and mission need to go hand-in-hand,” Cothron said. “But in this community, mission is paramount. The things everyone should be asking are what other ways are there to get the job done? How do you create more capacity? Deliver analytics to help the mission? Improve continuity of operations? Get more for each dollar? These are hard questions, and they require imaginative solutions.”
For example, Cothron said, bundling services may help reduce costs. Likewise, contractors might accept lower prices in exchange for a longer term. “You need to develop a strategy going in that’s focused on the mission, and then set specific goals for what you want to accomplish,” he added. “There are ways to improve quality. How you contract is one of them.”
Risk of failure doesn’t have to be a disincentive to innovation. Like any risk, it can be managed – and savvy government professionals are discovering they can mitigate risks by leveraging experienced teams, sharing best practices and building on lessons learned. When they do those things, risk decreases – and the odds of success improve.