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VA Officials Detail Acquisition Efforts

Authored by Sean Tucker

“The metrics say we’re the best large-scale health care organization in the world.”

“But if you look at Facebook posts, it turns out we’re not universally popular for the services we provide.” That, Department of Veterans Affairs Chief Information Officer Roger Baker told a crowd of IT industry leaders, is the department’s newest challenge. Behind-the-scenes work on information systems is productive, he said, only if it has demonstrable effects on veterans’ health care.

Speaking at INPUT‘s VA Industry Forum yesterday, Baker explained, “It turns out that veterans don’t differentiate between the Veterans Health Service and the Veterans Benefit Service, so when it takes us a year to process their claims, they start out with a negative impression” of the health care service – even though health care metrics show that it’s one of the most effective and efficient organizations in the world.

Quick Wins

The VA has made some progress in correcting its image with veterans. Baker cited the “blue button” initiative, which allows veterans to download their entire lifetime medical record with the click of a single button, as one example. “Veterans love it and they will use it. We’ve had folks from the industry side develop tools to use that data as you download it. And blue button was not that hard. It should have been done years ago. But boy, the impact of those things is tremendous.”

But other successes seem to go unnoticed. “Why is it that VA has MRSA rates that are approximately zero in 153 of the biggest hospitals in the country, and that’s not the way it runs in the private sector?” he asked, referring to cases of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infections. “We could be doing more with these metrics.”

“Another example is data breaches. How many large-scale orgs do you know that publish their data breaches each month and answer questions until the press is out of questions?” he asked. “We do, and I’m very pleased to say they’re boring these days. A boring privacy breach press call is nirvana from my perspective.”

“I think you’ll see a lot more of these quick wins over the next few years.”

To explore how they’ll get there, Baker introduced Steven Schliesman, Director of the Secretary’s Initiatives Project Management Division for the VA.

“Industry Tells Me What’s Wrong in My Organization”

Schliesman was blunt about the clash of cultures between government and industry.

“After working on government side, in the Army, I thought that, through the competitive acquisition process, you get the best possible solutions,” he told the crowd. “But then I got to spend a year doing training with industry. I got to be part of the proposal development process – pink teams, red teams, etc – and I learned that, in truth, the competitive acquisition process just gives you the best of those who choose to compete.”

“I now know that my job is to expand that field, because if I put out the best-written RFP and you don’t see it, then I don’t get the best solution.”

“I also learned that there is an enormous amount of business intelligence in a room like this that I don’t have in my organization.”

In order to bridge the gap, he’s started a “vendor visit” program, where VA executives travel to vendor offices to ask what the organization needs to change. “I’ll be honest with you, I know that the first 20 minutes of that session I’m just getting your sales pitch. The next 20 minutes, you’re just going to tell me what’s wrong with your competitors. But that last 20 minutes – that’s when industry tells me what’s wrong in my organization. They give me a ground-level view that otherwise tends not to filter up in the government.”

The VA has launched a new project management approach, Schliesman said, partly in response to these sessions, tracking contract performance in 6-month increments. “We want to see customer-delivered functionality on an incremental basis so we can ensure that we’re on-track.” With the government increasingly turning to large, multiple-award task-order contracts, Schliesman expects to start issuing each six-month incremental requirement as a separate task order.

VA Won’t Leave Unspent Money

Schliesman noted that the agency has often found itself forced to spent money against a tight deadline – something he’s trying to correct. “Last year, we went into the fourth quarter trying to push through almost 1,000 acquisitions,” he explained.

“This year, we’ve successfully slid that effort into the third quarter. We’ll do 500 in the third quarter and 500 in the fourth. It’s still not ideal, because I know you can’t propose to them all. But we’re trying to make the process more structured and predictable so that you can propose more effectively,” and the VA will have access to the best solutions industry can offer.

The agency is also in a hurry, he said, because it doesn’t want to leave any unspent funds. “We saw what would happen through the Continuing Resolution process this year,” he explained, when the agency saw Congress take away unspent funds.

[Editor’s note: for more on this trend, read about Deltek Chief Knowledge Officer Ray Bjorklund’s presentation at FedSources’ Federal Outlook Conference last month.]

Myth: The Acquisitions Game is Fixed. Truth: We’re Not That Smart

Schliesman also used his chance in front of industry leaders to counter a myth that, he said, has kept industry from winning business, and kept the VA from fully harnessing the power of contractors.

“How many of you think that, if an RFP is on the street for seven days or less, it’s pre-wired for someone?” he asked. Virtually every hand in the room went up.

“It’s not,” Schliesman assured them. “I’m here to tell you that we’re not smart enough to pre-wire them. The reason for the short turn-around time is because of volume.” The VA, he told the crowd, can’t do 1,000 acquisitions in one quarter without pushing some through faster than it would like to.

“We have acquisitions that no one is proposing to. We have some RFPs out on the street now for the second time because we didn’t get a single proposal.”

Not All Firm, Fixed-Price Anymore

In response to a question, Schliesman told the audience to expect a more diverse set of contract vehicles from the VA in coming years.

“From a risk-management standpoint, we picked up the baby, bathwater, tub, sink, house, and so on, and threw it all under firm, fixed-price” when the new administration took office, he explained.

“We have now picked up the endorsement from senior leadership to use other vehicles. You’re going to start to see some. It’s going to take some time, but we’re on the path.”

“I Need You to Help Me”

Schliesman concluded with a plea to the gathered industry leaders to engage the VA.

“I’m currently booking vendor visits for July,” he said. “Send me an email if you want to set one up.”

Then, make the most of it. “A lot of folks just come to us with their marketing material. If you want to make the most of your time, bring me the verbiage you want to see in an acquisition document. Show me what will allow you to compete.”

“I need you to help me educate my program managers. We don’t have all that expertise. You have that expertise. I need you seeking my PMs out, and making them the smartest customer you could possibly deal with,” he explained. “I spent 20 years in the army building soldiers. I want to spend the next 20 taking care of them. I need you to help me do that.”

Sean Tucker covers the federal government and the contracting industry for GovWin.com, the network that helps government contractors win new business every day. He can be reached at [email protected].

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