Meet the Procuremenati: USDS’ Acquisition Experts
By Clair Koroma
Current government buying methods struggle to keep pace with fast-changing technology. This includes how the government purchases tools and services, and how it establishes contracts with vendors of all sizes to build technology. For instance, they often take an all or nothing approach, either meticulously defining every requirement or remaining unhelpfully vague about expected outcomes. On top of that, many contracts focus on how the work will be done (i.e. how many people will work on what how often, how they’ll report their progress, etc.) instead of what they will deliver in the end.
This status quo makes it difficult to:
· Quickly adapt to ensure delivery of working code and products.
· Mandate regular, continuous delivery throughout a contract.
· Introduce new technologies while ensuring high quality and performance.
For all of these reasons, government digital projects often overrun budgets and timelines, and final products either don’t work or don’t fit the needs of real users. We need to catch up to the private sector by focusing on outcomes, continuous delivery, and products that truly work for end users. The good news is that we can, and we’re already making and seeing change.
Enter the Procuremenati
USDS has a small team of acquisition experts applying methods from the private sector for acquiring and managing digital tools and services. Every day we encourage agencies to use contracting strategies that get the most value for taxpayers’ money.
Over the last two years, we’ve helped bring government buyers up to speed on today’s digital services market, equipped them with tools and tactics to craft contracts as effectively as the private sector, and forged important ties with industry to communicate that the government wants to and can purchase better, more innovative solutions.
In order to help the government buy better, we developed the following principles specific to buying digital services. These focus on the most pressing needs for users and institutionalizes a set of habits for making better purchasing decisions.
- Emphasize project missions and challenges to attract the best vendor talent. Great digital service providers are often motivated by the magnitude of the problems they can solve when they work for the government.
- Pay for results, not time. A working product is the ultimate metric of success.
- Don’t lock technical requirements into contracts so that new, more effective technologies and methods are not blocked.
- Buy design and agile software development services as a repeated process for the delivery of a working product. Technological enhancements never end.
- Determine how much of the budget to invest in finding the right solution. Only continue investing if value is demonstrated.
- Buy small, build small, test, and iterate. Set up each contract for a quick win, then determine how to scale that success or pivot quickly.
- Leverage the efficiency of commercial contracting methods. If and when possible, use services and tools sold by private sector vendors.
- Choose teams that have demonstrated success in developing trust, accountability, and navigating cultural barriers. Evaluate demonstrated coding skills and quality of previous delivery expertise as an indicator for future performance.
- Get solutions into the hands of users quickly. Incorporate accessibility, security, and usability testing into the process to avoid bottlenecks.
Here at USDS, we’re pursuing three major initiatives to make these habits the norm:
· Empowering and educating the government buyers
· Expanding the selection of government vendors
· Changing processes and culture by proposing new solutions and demonstrating how the private sector handles similar situations.
Let’s take a closer look at each, and what we’ve done and learned so far.
Education & Empowerment
The TechFAR Hub
In partnership with the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), we created https://TechFarHub.cio.gov, a public website that gives government acquisition experts the language, support and tools they need to flexibly navigate regulations and write better contracts. In addition to advice and tactics for government buyers, it also provides a how-to guide for private companies looking to do business with agencies. The Hub offers practical tools and examples to support the adoption of better buying habits, including:
- Online templates for digital services contracts that require and reinforce the use of tech sector best practices.
- Field guides to bridge the divide between government and first-time contractors.
- Schedules for training and events.
- A forum where acquisition professionals can ask each other questions, share experiences, and learn from one another.
The Digital IT Training Acquisitions Training Program (a.k.a. DITAP)
Also with OFPP, we’ve developed a training program to certify contracting officers in digital service acquisition. The DITAP program includes customized learning paths, self-directed and guided learning techniques, and a skills lab project for practical application. We’re on our second class right now, with many graduates from the first going into digital acquisitions roles soon after their graduation. In 2017, the Government Services Administration will start running the program so that other government agencies can implement the same curriculum and scale it as needed.
Expanding Vendor Selection
Contract Vehicles that Find the Best Vendor for the Job
To make sure the government is working with the right vendors, we’re helping implement contracting vehicles that validate vendor talent and support agile software development. Working within the boundaries of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), we’ve pulled in specialized authorities to help digital teams work fast and lean.
So far, we’ve helped GSA, the Departments of Health and Human Services, Defense, and Homeland Security use contract vehicles that will ensure the quality of digital products. Here are just a few examples:
· At Defense, we’re creating a new type of contract that will support prototyping of digital services. We believe this will streamline the selection of non-traditional vendors who can potentially bring cutting-edge solutions to existing issues.
· For GSA, we helped establish the first ever government-wide agile vendor pool for Salesforce integrators, applying what we call a Blanket Purchase Agreement (BPA). This BPA creates a small pool of previously vetted, highly qualified Salesforce software development partners, which will ultimately reduce the risk of deployment failures. Learn more here.
· We worked with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) at HHS to investigate how to best modernize its physician payment system. We recommended establishing a BPA for purchasing software development services for a revised website. Along the way, we helped train employees to manage the agile contracts established under the BPA, which requires other unique skills and oversight. Placing orders under this BPA currently takes 2 months from identifying needs to project start date. This is very quick compared to the norm, which can be up to a year.
· The Digital Service at the Department of Homeland Security, in conjunction with DHS leadership, created a new type of vehicle that requires vendors to come for an intensive in-personal interview to validate their technical skills and performance before they are hired. Called Flexible Agile Support for the Homeland (FLASH), the vehicle has already been awarded and will yield partnerships with new types of vendors who are highly qualified for digital service projects.
Encouraging New Entrants to Compete for Our Business
We must establish new relationships with private sector digital service vendors to make sure we’re working with the best and have access to the most cutting-edge technology. Unfortunately, many of these prospective partners choose not to do business with the government because it’s cumbersome, or they face barriers to entry that prevent them from registering as government contractors. We’ve interviewed a number of these vendors to determine how we can help bring them into the marketplace, create healthy competition, and expand the pool of contractors who can provide high-quality, agile services. Here are two actions we’ve taken:
· Producing the right resources: We created a Field Guide with basic information a company needs to know about how to register and find opportunities with the government.
· Seeding more small business contracts: USDS helped the Small Business Administration modernize and consolidate the systems that power its certification programs for disadvantaged, women-owned and minority-owned small businesses. We also assisted them in developing a contract to create these better systems using private-sector best practices. When more small businesses are eligible for government contracts, there are many more innovative options for agencies to partner with. In this case, SBA was able to create and award the contract in just three months, and launch the first part of the new service for small business users six months after that.
Evolving Acquisition Culture and Process
Consistent Consultation with Stakeholders
Whether we’re advising an agency team on how to craft a contract, or consulting with agency partners on how to modify contracts or implement new ones that support agile methods, we always emphasize the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of what we suggest. A lot of the methods and strategies we introduce are new or run counter to how agencies have traditionally operated. By breaking down our recommendations, thoroughly explaining every aspect, and providing helpful examples, we hope to spur productive modifications to “business as usual.” For example:
· The Defense Travel System Pilot: We teamed up with DoD to determine how they could modernize their expensive and complex software system for booking and managing travel. We made three recommendations that were accepted, and DoD is running a pilot to test a commercial tool for travel. We suggested they look to the commercial sector to find a solution that could be lightly customized to their needs — not something they were used to but were willing to try. We also worked with them to simplify the Joint Travel Regulations to better complement a simpler, user-friendly tool. And we encouraged them to invest in data science to further improve user experience.
· Single ownership: Once a contract has been awarded, there’s still no guarantee of a high-quality product. Government needs to undergo cultural change to put single, tech-savvy, and empowered leaders in charge of managing contracts and the products toward successful outcomes. This is not something you typically find in government due to lack of training and how programs have been structured to date. USDS is working on training and certification programs to make this style of leadership the norm.
So What? Why Should You Be Excited?
Making the government a smarter buyer of technology products and services is central to USDS’s mission of improving the services that government provides the American people. Our team’s work is helping agencies improve the effectiveness of their digital services, while at the same time getting the best return on investment for taxpayers’ dollars spent on those services.
Whether it’s equipping the VA to improve its claims processing platform, or HHS to improve the way doctors treat Medicare and Medicaid recipients, government buying that supports quick implementation, continuous delivery, and real Americans’ needs is a better deal for everyone.
Clair Koroma is a Digital Services Expert working on procurement reform at USDS HQ. Her fellow Procuremenati include Traci Walker, Jonathan Mostowski, Shannon Sartin, Brent Maravilla and Aaron Pava. Michael Palmer and Erica Evans are members based at the Department of Homeland Security.
If you’re interested in joining the Procuremenati and others working to make acquisition better for all, go here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/usds/apply