The Prices Paid Project: A Presidential Innovation Fellowship

— by Robert L. Read

The Prices Paid story of the Presidential Innovation Fellowship begins with an act of Congress (Title 41 U.S. CODE § 3312 — DATABASE ON PRICE TRENDS OF ITEMS AND SERVICES UNDER FEDERAL CONTRACTS.) mandating the creation of a price trend database. As an applicant, I didn’t know that this project existed, I knew only that I had applied for a temporary fellowship to be on the “RFP-EZ II” team that would continue work done by the first round of Fellows. I figured my chance of being accepted was about one in twenty.

The letter that I had been selected as a Fellow seemed to open a door into a new and more impactful world. I had a great job as a director responsible for all new product development at a medium-sized software company. However, the RFP-EZ project, and Prices Paid, which was a sub-part of it in Round 2, had the potential to save the US Taxpayers billions of dollars a year. Nothing is more mundane nor more important to saving money than having good knowledge of market prices. Our team was in a position to make slight improvements to the huge mass of Federal procurement spend. I needed to buy some suits.

Our four-person team was well-supported and well-directed by our sponsors, Laura Mann-Eyester of the SBA and Karen Pica of the OMB. Two-and-half of us worked on continuing RFP-EZ, and one-and-a-half of us worked on Prices Paid, but we conferred and cooperated constantly.

Nothing goes as planned. We did not invent the “transformational pivot”, but we certainly practiced it. It was not so much that the original intentions of our projects were wrong, as that we found even better ones. It was as if we had been asked to pick up a five-dollar bill on the ground, and as we bent over we saw a ten, and then a twenty. FBOpen and SAM Status Tracker were two such “found” solutions implemented or supported by our team that were outside the original mission.

Kent Beck preaches: “Do the simplest thing that could possibly work.” In the case of Prices Paid, this was straightforward: reuse existing free, off-the-shelf open source search technology with a very simple ability to import comma-separated-value files. Martin Ringlein designed a beautiful, simple GUI. By staying simple, we had a demonstrable prototype done in 27 days. Nothing focuses a conversation quite like a prototype. The discussion became about how to get real users.

It was then that we bogged down in cybersecurity issues. My complete ignorance of government had been an assistance up to this point, but it then led me to make a classic mistake. I tried to build my own authentication system, when I should have reused an existing, albeit complex and opaque, government system. (I eventually did later integrate with the existing system.) The result was a one-month interruption. In a six-month project, a month is a long time.

As the six-month clock wound down on our project, we had accomplished a lot on Prices Paid. We had collected great user feedback from about 25 beta testers that could guide the future of the project, but the feedback wasn’t that the product was great. It needed more work. We were ready to launch, but not launched. We had a functional, but buggy, prototype. I don’t like to leave things unfinished.

I loved my work as a Fellow enough that I took a one-year extension and fully resigned from the job in Austin that had generously given me a six-month leave of absence during my Fellowship. I stayed in government and helped found 18F, and then created 18F Consulting along with Chris Cairns, another second-round Fellow who joined 18F. I like to believe that we are learning over time how to be ever more effective. A Fellowship is always a combination of learning, teaching, and building.

The Prices Paid project did what some Fellowship projects need to do: it ceased to be a Fellows project and was adopted and staffed by its parent agency, the GSA, which has worked on it without me since March of 2014 and eventually launched it. The GSA-completed version was shown to the President at a Cabinet meeting in February 2015.

In a way, the project was a disappointment, in that I don’t believe it is saving the billions of dollars that it could. Like many startups, it failed to accomplish the ambitious goals that I personally set for it.

But I am proud that we made things better. If you want to serve your country, are in spirit a world-changer, and can afford to move to Washington for a year, please consider applying for a Presidential Innovation Fellowship.