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10 Ways Social Media Will Improve Federal Acquisition

A couple months ago, I noticed a conversation on GovLoop regarding acquisition. Having spent the past ten years as a proposal writer that has responded to hundreds of Requests for Proposals on behalf of non-profit and educational institutions, I contributed six quick ideas to the discussion. Well, no good deed goes unpunished and those comments led to an invitation to serve on a panel titled, “Rockstars of Gov 2.0 Innovate Federal Acquisition,” that was held at the General Services Administration on July 1. Mary Davie (Assistant Commissioner, Office of Assisted Acquisition Services, General Services Administration) and Esther Burgess (Senior Vice President and COO, Vistronix) served as moderators and fellow panelists included Noel Dickover (Department of Defense), Kim Patrick Kobza (Co-Founder and CEO, Neighborhood America), Jack Kelly (Senior Policy Analyst, Office of Federal Procurement Policy, Office of Management and Budget), and Raj Sharma (President and Co-chair, Board of Directors at FAIR Institute, President and CEO, Censeo Consulting Group).

In preparation for the panel, I absorbed more than 120 comments in the Acquisition 2.0 group on GovLoop and reviewed this valuable background information (shared by group members):

Can Government Procurement Be Streamlined By Using Collaboration Technologies and Social Media? (a blog post by Dennis McDonald)
Enabling Federal IT Innovation and Results Through Strategic Buying and Management (a white paper by the Industry Advisory Council Transition Study Group )
Framework for Assessing the Acquisition Function at Federal Agencies (GAO-05-218G, September 2005)
Six Practical Steps to Improve Contracting (white paper by Dr. Allan Burman, Adjunct Professor, George Mason University and sponsored by IBM Center for the Business of Government)

These documents presented several possible summaries of the issues that face the contracting community. For instance, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) defines the framework for assessing acquisition functions through four cornerstones:

• Organizational Alignment and Leadership
• Policies and Processes
• Human Capital
• Information Management and Stewardship

Dr. Burman’s white paper identifies four major challenges that confront Federal acquisition:

• The Size and Competence of the Acquisition Workforce
• The Need for More Collaboration and Effective Management Tools
• The Role of Chief Acquisition Officers and Effective Oversight
• The Role of Contractors and the Multisector Workforce

But it was Mary Davie who summarized these categories most succinctly in a GovLoop comment as “people, process, technology and policy.” I’d like to adapt Mary’s short list and re-frame my original recommendations in light of people and processes. Below are 5 ideas for each of these factors.

PEOPLE

All across government, much has been made about the vast numbers of Baby Boomers eligible for retirement between now and 2015. Even before they retire, there are some critical human resource needs that require solutions, including recruitment of the next generation of acquisition professionals, knowledge transfer from seasoned contracting staff to their successors and meeting the educational requirements of mid-career acquisition personnel. My five solutions:

a. Use Flip cams or podcasting tools like Talkshoe.com or Audacity to capture the knowledge of retiring contracting officials in a downloadable, mobile format. Make it a critical performance element that new staff members or interns to record interviews with seasoned staff, asking them a comprehensive set of questions about their work.

b. Organize this audio and video content into topical libraries that you can use for on-boarding and training activities. If this happens across agencies, make them available on an inter-agency collaboration platform.

c. If any interesting job-related content is shared as part of these interviews, such as major acquisition activities (like buying a fighter jet or a bunch of humvees), consider posting short clips of these compelling stories on video sharing sites like YouTube or Vimeo. Demonstrate that acquisition can be very, very cool. I can’t imagine a better recruitment tool.

d. Establish a knowledge sharing platform where acquisition professionals can access job-related information in real-time rather than waiting for the next procurement training session. In other words, how can we establish a place where they can share best practices or perplexing problems with a multi-sector coalition of subject matter experts and colleagues with ready responses? Be sure to include other rich media like webinars (both live and recorded) to enhance the constellation of available resources. In other words, personnel will always benefit from formal training, but they also need just-in-time information that can’t wait weeks until the next workshop or webinar.

e. Be sure to incorporate participation in these kinds of platforms in Individual Development Plans and Career/Leadership Progression tracks. Infuse a culture of collaboration by connecting it to performance elements. The more a person shares, the more quickly they advance (both in terms of increasing their own knowledge and their peers).

BONUS: Create two-way mentoring scenarios in which tech-savvy employees teach the non-digital natives about these collaborative tools that mitigate time and distance. Remember, this doesn’t need to be younger to older; empower the employees who “get it” to teach the others.

By the way, many contracting jobs can be performed from anywhere – and employees from every generation (not just Gen X and Millennials) will appreciate the opportunity to have more flexible work environments and non-traditional schedules enabled by collaborative technology (especially you Boomers who plan to spend half of your retirement on a beach or golf course and the other half continuing to give back and share your hard-earned expertise).

PROCESS

Here are some of the process recommendations that initially forged my link to this conversation:

a. Create RFPs on wikis or other document sharing platforms. During the pre-solicitation phase, open discussion to contractors for comment. Rather than using a system like http://www.fedbizopps.gov that requires a lot more time and energy from both sides. It makes the whole process a lot more transparent and improves the final proposal submissions. It might even cause contractors to sharpen their pencils a bit more on price.

b. Record question and answer sessions via live, Web-based tools like Ustream, Skype or Tokbox. Allow vendors to submit real-time questions via Twitter – even if they want to DM them. Limiting questions to 140 characters would make them easier to review. Of course, some require a level of explanation, but all in all, it could work. Or you could post questions in advance and allow for Digg-like voting so that contractors can be sure to raise the most common or important questions to the top of the pile for government prioritization in producing responses.

c. Make pre-solicitation information available via RSS feeds. Pre-solicitation announcements could be recorded as podcasts or videos, then posted for potential bidders/contractors. Stage them as webinars using tools like Talkshoe or BlogTalkRadio.

d. Use tag clouds to allow vendors to more quickly find the appropriate RFPs and to see the top contracting needs across agencies. I have found that most searches are clunky and hard to read. Make the cloud smarter over time by populating the potential tags associated with each solicitation by what has been used in the past…it will also create consistency in the tags used across government.

e. Consider placing RFP examples in a common, collaborative environment. As Allen Magtibay said in the Acquisition 2.0 group discussion: “It would be great if there was a site where you could access old RFPs to use as a reference when drafting your own SOWs.” DoDTechipedia may be a model this kind of common site and, of course, GovLoop may be able to serve this function as well.

BONUS: Use tools like Adobe Captivate or the Common Craft videos to record technical aspects of the work, such as completing forms, to ease the training of new employees on these repetitive tasks.

There are going to be people in the procurement community who are resistant to these ideas. Start small. Pick one or two ideas and achieve quick victories. Then let’s build a better acquisition community, leveraging social media to attract talented contracting professionals and streamline inefficient processes.

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11 Comments

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Profile Photo GovLoop

I’m a fan of all of these but especially the people suggestions. Knowledge transfer is a huge problem and we need to do it from a number of angles. Most importantly it has to be fun. Love the flip cam and interview idea.

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

Thanks, Steve. I’d say it has to be fun AND it doesn’t have to be perfect. Just try something with minimal upfront cost as a pilot, then build on what works.

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Profile Photo Kim Patrick Kobza

Great post Andrew. Very thoughtful.

You are right on. The first challenge is to understand he business problem that we hope to solve and then, the desired results. From that point, we can establish the user behaviors and the ontologies necessary to solve the problems with networks. The key has to be the user/member. What motivates the user to participate and to share experiences? Only if we understand this will we be able to achieve results, build trust, and ultimately drive change.

Steve is most likely correct that we are going to achieve the greatest “lift” in network, unstructured and knowledge based applications than transactional activity. I believe that this is because knowledge is more personal and lends itself best to discovery and learning.-keys to building network exchange.

We can probably also create more novel experiences around knowledge sharing. Otherwise it “feels” too much like work. We want participation because the member wants to participate. To do this, they have to feel that they are in control.

Again, very solid post. Am going to use it as a reference! Nicely done.

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Profile Photo Tom Suder

Great ideas. Is there some way to actually apply these techniques to an actually procurement? The so-called Beta? You could start small on a task order and put the best minds (that have no skin in the game of the actual procurement) to work on getting it as perfect as possible?

Is that the next step in making procurement better?

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Profile Photo Peter G. Tuttle

Andy – great post. I am particularly drawn to the knowledge-sharing and mentoring comments/suggestions. IMHO, software solutions must be intertwined with human solutions for a complete package. For the last two years I have managed a mentoring program for bothTysons Corner Chapter of NCMA – and let me tell you mentoring and the basics of humans passing info to one are both invaluable. The one-on-one human “non-threatening” interaction is powerful and we have seen positive results at Tysons Corner. Anyway, my plug here is for mentoring – yes it takes time, effort and dedication, but the rewards are great to both mentees and mentors (not to mention the taxpayer and the profession). Pete

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

Tom – I think that’s where Mary Davie (and other government folks who are reading this!) can play a big role – implementing some of these ideas on smaller procurements, then learning lessons and building on success to expand.

Pete – Mentoring is the low-hanging fruit here. If there are programs in existence where conversations are happening, why not simply record those conversations as audio or video files? There are simple, free tools. The best part is that mentoring brings value beyond the one-to-one as ALL appropriate staff members begin to benefit from the conversations if they are made available via podcast.

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Profile Photo Jaime Gracia

The use of collaboration tools to help shape contract requirements I believe would be one the most effective ways to improve the acquisition process, reduce time to procure, and help shape better results. Poor requirements are consistently identified as the common denominator is where the acquisition process breaks down, and improving the “Process” through increased collaboration with industry should be given serious consideration in regards to acquisition reform. This will take serious culture change and leadership, but should result in a better system that helps improve cost, schedule, and performance outcomes.

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Profile Photo Peter G. Tuttle

Chris – agree. Sometimes, unfortunately, we don’t even bother to pick the low hanging fruit. The mixture of human and technology approaches into one solution is absolutely the right direction. Cheers.

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

Jaime – Imagine a process in which the government places a draft of the procurement on a wiki and asks potential vendors to provide suggested edits and questions directly into the document. With this approach, government and vendors collaboratively arrive at a set of requirements that everyone understands in real-time…which (ideally) reduces the time for both vendor response and acquisition selection.

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Profile Photo Brian Hagan

It’s a great idea for us to develop a common knowledge sharing database, wiki-style, for acquisition and contracting professionals is required for effective sharing. I support this idea wholly. Combining written regulations and policies with video blogs, power point presentations with notes, RSS feeds, and on-line training would revolutionize the way we access information. It could be kept up to date by a volunteer acquisition community who earn recognition for their efforts. A wiki could be linked to pages containing best practices, SOW examples, and contract clauses, and also common acquisition milestones for program teams. Inclusion of this type of technology would make the acquisition process including the contracting phase more efficient.

A Word of Warning

However, collaboratively writing RFP’s/SOW with contractors could become a frustrating process. There needs to be some awareness that contractors will try to game the system. First, they may not contribute during the process to determine the competitors’ capabilities or copy their technology. Thereby hold back information in order to give them a competitive edge.
Secondly, some companies free ride, or contribute very little during the collaboration process when a program group is working on a set of technical standards in order to be included on any patents. Mostly this is done to collect on any patents royalties, inflating the price to the consumer or customer. Another tactic used by some entrepreneurs is to search for intellectual property (royalty) opportunities, either to purchase it before research is conducted, or file a patent prior to work is completed. Again, with the idea that they can potentially collect on royalties. This has happened in the commercial marketplace, especially in telecommunication and software industries.

On the flip side, I think that we can write better SOWs and do better contracting if we learn how to control and manage the collaborative process.

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