How to Overcome the 3 Most Common Barriers to Innovation in Government Acquisition

Innovation has long been a buzzword in government. But it’s not enough to just throw around the phrase – innovation means actually taking a new approach that creates new value more efficiently and effectively than before, with the outcomes to prove it.

One area where government aims to have innovation but is falling behind is in acquisition. According to ACT-IAC, despite a growing number of success stories made possible through acquisition innovation, progress has often been slow and limited to certain pockets within agencies. Agencies continue to struggle with how and when to test ideas, and many continue to view testing as a “nice-to-have” that is pursued only when you have the time and only if you are prepared to take on heightened risk.

But there is hope out there. In order to help government employees truly weave innovation into their procurement efforts, ACT-IAC on Tuesday hosted its Acquisition Excellence 2018 event. In the session “Overcoming the Fear of Testing New Acquisition Approaches,” panelists discussed the top three common barriers to innovation in acquisition and how to start overcoming them. Panelists included Eric Cho, Project Lead for the Homeland Security Department’s Procurement Innovation Lab (PIL); Greg Capella, Deputy Director of the Commerce Department’s National Technology Information Service (NTIS); Alla Goldman Seiffert, Acting Director, and Assistant Commissioner, Office of Acquisition, Technology Transformation Service, General Services Administration; Jim Williams a Partner at Schambach & Williams Consulting; and Richard Spires, former Chief Information Officer of DHS.

According to panel moderator Matthew Blum, Associate Administrator for the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, there are three main barriers to innovation in government acquisition: a lack of overall bandwidth and resources, a general fear of protests and oversight, and a lack of management support for innovative tactics and an anxious program office.

The panel walked the audience through each of these challenges and shared potential ways to overcome them to truly wrap innovation into acquisition efforts and help government keep pace with technology.

Challenges to Innovation in Government Acquisition

Challenge #1: Lack of Bandwidth

A major challenge agencies face is that they simply don’t have the resources or personnel to try out new tactics or innovate upon current acquisition methods, so they often revert to the same old tactics, Blum said. But thanks to skill-sharing platforms in government, there are ways to do more out there with less. These include the Open Opportunities platform, where people can post requests for help on a particular topic and get advice from experienced acquisition folks across government. There’s also the Acquisition Gateway Innovation Hub, “a workspace for acquisition professionals and federal buyers to connect with resources, tools and each other to improve acquisition government-wide.” The Acquisition Gateway also offers templates, best practices and advice from experts. Finally, there are full-assisted service acquisition programs that exist throughout government that any agency can take advantage of.

Cho of DHS said that government isn’t like a school course. “You should plagiarize shamelessly,” he laughed. “Borrow shamelessly from those who are doing it right, then just copy and paste, and that will save you time,” he said. He also recommended checking out webinars and acquisition coaching services offered by the DHS Procurement Innovation Lab.

Challenge #2: Fear of Protests

A bid protest is a challenge to the award or proposed award of a contract for the procurement of goods and services, or a challenge to the terms of a solicitation for such a contract. According to Blum, fear of being protested is one of the major barriers to implementing innovation in government acquisition.

A 2016 Grant Thorton survey pointed out the obvious: “Acquisition workers’ inexperience means they tend to focus on compliance and don’t understand the flexibilities in the FAR,” the survey notes. “As a result, they tend to be overly risk averse out of fear of protests or punishment, rather than trying new and different things.”

Ultimately, it comes down to learning to accept the notion that protests are a fact of life and they will happen, Blum said. There may even be opportunities to learn from them as they happen.

Seiffert said learning from agile methodologies can help people learn to deal with protests and ultimately avoid them, too. “If you learn to iterate, test, refine, and then deploy, you learn more and more,” she said. “Eventually this creates less risk because you’ve learned important lessons along the way.”

Challenge #3: Lack of Management Support and an Anxious Program Office

Cho revealed that the PIL had conducted a survey and found 70 percent of the people said they aren’t innovating because of fear and culture resistance within their own offices.

“Innovation means risk,” he pointed out, “and government is notoriously risk averse.” The fear of protests is often built into government culture and performance management, he added. “There are no real incentives for risk taking and this has a ripple effect outwards,” he said. “The current process rewards compliance rather than creativity, and this leads to a lack of empowerment amongst staff.”

In order to overcome an inherent fear of protests and create a safe culture where risks are encouraged rather than discouraged, Seiffert said she actually incorporates resiliency and innovation as a performance percentage for her employees. “You have to incentivize for innovation,” she pointed out. “And you need to know, if something does fail, which is inevitable, can an employee bounce back and try a different tactic? That’s important, too.”

“We need to create a sense of urgency around innovation,” Blum concluded. “Innovation is critical to a healthy acquisition system.”

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