Agile Acquisition – How Do We Really Do This?

BY now, we’ve all heard about the agile development process and how, today, an iterative approach to developing/implementing IT programs is in vogue. We’ve also heard all the many complaints about how the Federal acquisition process is too slow to keep up with rapidly changing technology, evolving requirements, etc. We also are aware that any changes to the law, regulations and policy that affect the Federal procurement process may a longer time than we think is necessary.

All this being said, how do we, as acquisition professionals, actually execute our procurements in a more agile manner? I don’t necessarily mean just quicker, but I mean accounting for the rapid and continuous change (some would say chaos) that is an expected part of the agile process. How do we successfully structure our contracts to accommodate rapidly evolving requirements and the possible risk of periodic failure (try-try-again) with a risk-sharing approach that does not place all the risk on either party?

Another community which has not kept pace with agile is the oversight community. How can acquisition professionals structure their agreements to address the needs of agile development and yet not get burned alive on audits or investigations?

As available funds continue to diminish (as they surely will given the Nation’s debt and economy situation) and as the need to adopt procurement approaches that address ever more rapidly changing requirements and technologies, both coupled with an expected continuation of the laser-like focus of oversight organizations on process efficiency and the reduction of the cost of governing, what are your suggestions in regards to agile acquisition?

None of the above is really new. We have grappled with these issues before and will likely do so again in the future. What’s new is the fact that we have many newer professionals in the field that are struggling with these issues today.

I look forward to seeing your comments.


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Ron Falcone

Iterative, agile, etc….

My recent experience has been that the mindset in federal IT is still old school especially with adherence to the systems development life cycle (SDLC). Yes, the cloud is the new frontier, but it will interesting to see how Cloud and the more traditional software development methodologies converge or collide.

Jaime Gracia

I think one trend that will get more traction is the use of multiple-award contracts (MACs) in all forms (BPAs, IDIQs, GWAC, etc.).

The exodus of personnel in the acquisition fields will continue, and contracting shops will also continue to experience ever increasing workloads. Although multiple award contracts have always been popular, their popularity will only skyrocket because buyers can significantly shrink procurement lead times, and realize cost savings. Further, market research efforts are marginalized through limited competition, and also help alleviate delays and fears of protests.

In regards to agile and faster insertion of technology, these vehicles make sense, as contracts can be awarded quickly and with as little hassle and effort required by the buyers. It is one of the best answers of “doing more with less.”

Unfortunately, many organizations are creating even more and more MACs without due diligence of using existing vehicles, eroding the government’s buying power and diluting cost savings. This goes to the OFPP memo of requiring a business case and approval process for any new MACs.

Enough MACs exist that new ones are a waste of time and money. A buyer can get pretty much anything under the sun through just GSA’s Alliant, NASA’s SEWP, and the GSA Schedules. Full and open competition has gone the way of the dodo, as acquisition personnel continue to attempt to perform under difficult conditions.

I just hope the new workforce coming in understand how to use these vehicles, but more importantly, how not to.

Ron Falcone

There was a recent Final rule to the FAR (Case 2008-326) regarding the prevention of the abuse on Interagency Acquisitions. both at the contract creation stage and at the ordering stage. Specifically, the final rule expands the requirement for business-case analysis for servicing agencies when establishing GWACs as well MACs. In additional, requesting agencies will now have to justify a “best procurement approach” when placing orders under interagency contracts (GWAC, MAC & FSS orders > $500k.)

This also corresponds to an OFPP memo from Dan Gordon on 9/29/2011 “Development, Review and Approval of Business Cases for Certain

Interagency and Agency-Specific Acquisitions”

Enforcing this is another story since OFPP does not have any enforcement role in federal contracting.

John D Driessnack

Good question … I find the answer is in developing an AGILE Acquisition Strategy for the program. I’m not talking about acq plans for individual contracts, but a comprehensive Acq Strategy for the program or project. Spend time up front (and it is amazing how we don’t do this) to figure out how best to navigate the federal environment so best practices can be implemented by both government and industry partners. If one of those best practices is AGILE ..than build into the strategy how you will exploit AGILE principles. It is very possible. I did a webinar several months ago on this exact topic with Glen Alleman. We both have implemented AGILE in the federal environment. You can listen to the webinar (and earn a PDU) at I also discuss this topic in several parts of the Senior PM Certificate program at American University. As i work with the senior federal PMs in those courses, it is clear you can’t just fall into AGILE. Don’t think you can apply AGILE across all of your project or program, but you can fold it into key parts and get a big bang for your efforts. The lesson is you can be AGILE in federal environment, but you must be disciplined about it.

Janina Rey Echols Harrison

I think one of the issues with GWACs and MACs may be that there isn’t a good centralized program that makes it easy to find existing contracts for products you are trying to find. I think it has improved some, but according to our contracting folk, they aren’t that easy to find info.

Another issue is that there are some rediculous requirements in other areas of procurement, that don’t make much sense.

An example: We live in a remote area and have a vendor for office supplies who is in compliance with all the requirements for us to be able to buy from them. Their prices are great and they can do same day delivery. It is in our interest since we are a major employer in the area to also do business with local businesses to support the community that surrounds us. We loved their service but were told we had to buy supplies from someone who has to ship them to us, the prices are not as good, turn around time is longer, and then we have to pay the shipping. It is bad for our local economy. I am sure someone’s brother-in-law is profiting from this. It’s bad business practice for a small community to cut the legs out from under a local supplier.

John D Driessnack

Agile acquisition is not just getting on contract fast …. or easy. Many of these GWACs are not set up to take advantage of best practices in program management. So you get what you pay for …or what you invest into the process. Large Agencies with big GWACs … have those program performed better! Sometimes, but in manny cases they do not. GWAC and short task orders are more often not the right answer for best value to the government nor ultimately delivering performance to the public. It can be very hard to do real performance measurement that assures value delivered.

Alexis Anderson

We’ve actually been talking a lot about this very topic at Management Concepts and recently introduced a course to help Federal employees and contractors learn how to implement Agile in a Federal environment. The course goes beyond Agile’s typical focus on software development and information technology (IT) to include applications in acquisitions, program management, and non-IT domains. You can learn more about it here: Agile Project Management for the Federal Environment

Peter G. Tuttle

Great comments, one and all. I especially like John’s comment about creating an agile acquisition strategy. I will listen to the webinar he mentioned as well. Setting the tone for how the power and flexibility of the acquisition process will be used from the very beginning of a program to achieve that program’s ultimate outcomes is a remarkably good idea. It prepares and presents the ground rules for how acquisition will be conducted. I also agree that agile acquisition is not simply fast or easy. Once the objectives and surrounding facts are identified concerning any program, a common-sense (and perhaps agile) approach to supplying any necessary services and supplies can be developed. Thanks and I hope to read more comments like these that will help continue our dialog. Pete

John D Driessnack

Thanks Peter. I have found that you can accomplish almost anything in Federal acquisition if you know the process and you use it, not fight it. Then be transparent..and haivng a strategy documented in an Acquisition strategy does that. it also gets the Agency and overall stakeholders to buy in most Acq Strategies get signed off up the chain.

Wonder which agencies are using AGILE. I know of current examples in NASA. HUD CIO just put out new policy (you can see it on there web site) with AGILE as an option for some parts of the portfolio. Who else is using AGILE in Federal environment?

Peter G. Tuttle

Hi John. Thanks for your follow-on comment. I think some in DOD are also grappling with the development end of agile, but I have yet to hear (from other than GovLoop) a really good debate on how the procurement process can adapt to agile. We are talking about it in the ACT-IAC Acquisition Management Shared Interest Group (SIG) and are working to find some acquisition practitioners who can share lessons-learned to a larger audience. Any ideas? Thanks. Pete