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Let Sellers Talk to Buyers Early in Procurement

This piece was originally published for Bloomberg Government on 03/11/2011.

The Obama White House announced plans in December to transform the way federal information technology projects are managed and executed. Its 25-point implementation instructions to federal agencies include many good ideas, from the adoption of light technologies and shared services to aligning the budget and acquisition process with the technology cycle.
The 24th and 25th points go to something deeper — and actually transformative — in the way government IT projects operate: increased engagement with private industry. They suggest new opportunities to develop relationships among industry experts and key procurement personnel that are currently closed or difficult to create.
This is the gaping hole in the government procurement process. For understandable but increasingly obsolescent reasons, government acquisition officials create artificial barriers and prevent themselves from working as closely as they could with industry experts in the earliest stages of the acquisition process.
While the Federal Acquisition Regulation encourages such exchanges, the perception of improper influence and unethical behavior, coupled with the risk-adverse nature of government in general, often prevents meaningful communications from occurring.
The results are poor requirements development and the unintended consequences of waste, fraud and abuse that are rampant in many programs across the government.
Identify Needs
The requirements phase identifies the needs and scope of a project and thus becomes its blueprint. By having more meaningful discussion with stakeholders, specifically industry stakeholders, proper requirements and can be developed, increasing the opportunities for governance and oversight.
When both government and contractors can focus on execution of common goals and objectives, based on designed metrics developed early in the program, they lessen the chances of costly change orders and foster better outcomes.
Regretfully, in the current system, stakeholders in industry are an afterthought, and industry experts have little bearing on helping program managers and acquisition officers develop sound requirements to ensure goals are realistic and achievable.
Best practices on how industry develops requirements are what the government desperately needs. By focusing on the earlier phases of an acquisition, which is to focus as far left as possible in the needs-identification phase of an agency’s acquisition lifecycle, user requirements are matched with customer needs and available resources, and products can be designed within cost, schedule and performance goals.
Social Media Tools
So how can legitimate ethics concerns be accommodated while still making room for the obvious benefits of government-industry communications?
Here’s where social media technology now provides new tools to facilitate communication and maintain proper arms-length relationships.
Recently, the government launched several online wiki tools to explore collaboration between government and industry in an open-dialogue platform. Thousands of visitors participated from all 50 states. They included Fortune 500 company experts interacting in an environment where they suggested best practices and cutting-edge solutions to identified needs.
The results were an encouraging start of the future of these exchanges. The feedback was “both more comprehensive and more actionable than what could have been obtained through traditional methods,” wrote Vivek Kundra, the government’s chief information officer and author of the 25-point plan.
In fact, crowd sourcing and stakeholder analysis are commonly used by commercial entities in these knowledge-based environments. Many companies use a structured product-development process to ensure that a high level of knowledge exists about a product at key junctures during its development, similar to milestones or phased entry-points used by the Defense Department.
It’s this knowledge-based process that helps enable decision makers to be reasonably confident about product quality, reliability and timeliness.
Through these interactive platforms, key decision makers, such as program managers, can develop the information they need, particularly in the period before issuing a request for proposal, or RFP, when they need more effective ways to perform market research.
The current acquisition process for market research uses a request for information, or RFI. Just like the stages following an RFP, and RFI requires a significant investment in business development dollars for a prospective bidder to build the relationships necessary to be on the government buyer’s radar.
As both industry and government realize the value of early interaction, both business development expenditures and procurement lead times can be drastically reduced. The new interactive platform will allow government to get more focused and value-added input from industry, improve awareness of cutting-edge technologies and allow for increased opportunities for innovation, competition and flexibility in contract development.
The platform, being built by the General Services Administration, is scheduled for beta-testing and initial operating capability by Memorial Day. I hope that industry contractors continue to keep track of this development, if only to increase their own performance along with that of government’s.

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