What goes on behind the scenes in federal acquisitions can seem like a mystical process to those of us who aren’t directly involved. But the last group you’d expect to be left in the dark are the very companies vying for and winning federal contracts.
Too often, agencies develop requirements for goods and services in house — under much secrecy. Once requirements are published, those in industry who dare to ask questions are told to do their homework because everything is detailed in the request for proposal.
That’s the reality Bill Weinberg, Director of Acquisition Management at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, described at a recent forum hosted by Brocade and FedScoop.
“We get kind of hypothetical answers to hypothetical questions, and then we award a contract and then we find out a year or two later that that isn’t really what we wanted,” Weinberg said. “So we are trying to modernize that process and realize that we don’t know even all the parameters of the problem. But if we talk to industry — the people that are solving these problems in the commercial world [and] … for other agencies that we may not be collaborating with yet — then we may get to define the problem a little better and get a better solution.”
Weinberg’s panel discussion focused on a topic that isn’t new to government: transforming IT acquisition to increase innovation and returns on investments. The question raised by government and industry experts on the panel was how can agencies better communicate with industry upfront on what they need while still leaving room for industry to provide innovative solutions.
The acquisition process is really the interface between the requirements and the vendor community, Weinberg said. “We’re trying to push the requirements to be defined in a way that requires a solution to be provided and not a stated set of steps that the vendor can take to satisfy the requirement. We’re really trying to promote the dialogue that will get people to think about providing solutions and not specific answers.”
Agencies often put a requirement out that says here is our problem, we know what the solution is, we need somebody to do it, Weinberg explained. “What we are trying to ask of the CIOs [and] data managers is to put out a requirement that says, ‘we have a problem, we would like to hear how you would solve this problem first.’”
But government can only do that through rounds of communication and by fostering that culture in the acquisition process. At various component agencies within DHS, they are hosting industry collaboration sessions where federal acquisition professionals talk to industry associations about their needs. What they won’t do is talk to one company exclusively. The goal is to be transparent and open about requirements, so they can get the message out to a wide audience and arrive at a better solution.
This is an ongoing struggle government has been working to fix. In 2011, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy launched a myth busting campaign to address the misconceptions hindering communications between vendors and agencies. Since then, engagement between agencies and with industry has improved, but there’s plenty of room for improving how the government buys more than $500 billion annually in goods and services. On IT alone the government spends more than $80 billion each year.
“We continue to find ways to get competition, but what that means is share, share, share,” said Mary Davie, Assistant Commissioner of Integrated Technology Services at the General Services Administration. “And I tell my people all the time, ‘Tell everybody as much as you can about anything that they’re doing up until the point where you just can’t talk anymore.’”
That was the mindset GSA used to develop Alliant II, a Governmentwide Acquisition Contract. “The Alliant team at GSA has worked diligently to engage with stakeholders on a transparent, collaborative and interactive process, including both federal agency and industry partner involvement during the pre-solicitation phase,” according to Davie. “The results of that engagement are well-rounded final RFPs that build on the success of the first generation Alliant solutions, and that incorporate feedback from customers and the vendor community.
To boost engagement across government and with industry, Davie said GSA uses online tools for dialogue. One example is GSA Interact, an online collaboration platform for government and industry to share and learn about acquisition topics across GSA. For the Alliant II contracts, more than 8,000 people provide ideas and input via GSA Interact. The dialogue also enabled industry to better understand what questions were being asked by the government community, what they were interested in and potential opportunities to compete and partner with other vendors.
“We’re just trying to share as much as possible and be as open as possible to get, really, some awesome solutions for the rest of government,” Davie said. “We are seeing a much increased level of interest in really strong proposals as we go forward, and that is helping to drive innovation.”
Is your agency taking an innovative approach to improve the acquisition process and boost engagement between government and industry? Share your best practices and insights in the comment section.