The many flavors of innovative acquisition


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This is the second in a series of stories profiling a governmentwide movement on innovating federal acquisitions.

Scattered throughout government, there are safe zones for innovation emerging.

It’s within those bubbles of experimentation — places like the General Services Administration’s 18F, the Department of Health and Human Services’ IDEA Lab, and the White House’s U.S. Digital Service — where, with the approval and support of upper level management, innovators are making progress on acquisition.

Each with its own flavor, these labs, digital services units and “tech surge” teams — whatever you might call them — are all working toward the same goal of better government IT delivery, a system that is broken, hemorrhaging taxpayer money by the billions in ineffective and failed technology projects.

“They’re all names,” said Mark Naggar, the program manager of HHS Buyers Club, the project driving smarter IT acquisition within HHS’ IDEA Lab. “But behind the surface, if you pull back the curtains, we’re all kind of trying to accomplish the same thing in somewhat different ways: trying to experiment, shifting toward agile, we’re trying to collaborate more, trying to be more transparent with people, we’re trying to help people achieve success in IT service delivery.”

Naggar said that became especially apparent when several of these groups gathered earlier this year at a conference he set up around innovative acquisition sponsored by his Federalwide Buyers Club program, an iteration of the HHS program meant to be a broader community of practice for innovative acquisition.

The gathering momentum is a good sign, said Greg Godbout, former executive director of 18F.

“Whenever there’s been good ideas throughout history, there’s always been multiple movements across the world doing it simultaneously almost. That’s what you see here,” he said. “We’re all part of different organizations, though. And a lot of programs will have something unique that they have to buy a certain way.”

[Read more: Catch up on the first installment of this series on innovative acquisition.]

Even defense agencies are rethinking the way they acquire technology to keep up with its rapid evolution, led in part by Dan Doney, chief innovation officer of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

“There are different variations on the same general theme — that is, getting the end users involved earlier, reaching nontraditional providers of ideas, streamlining the processes and rethinking the core processes we use in order to get our hands on the right things,” Doney said of the developing movement. “Those are the general principles across. There’s a whole bunch of ways that you get to that end state.”

Though there are many players in innovative acquisition reform, and some get more spotlight than others, Naggar said it doesn’t matter who carries the torch as long as it drives progress.

“We’re less concerned with who does it and what mechanism it goes on,” he said. “We’re more concerned about realizing and pushing innovative acquisition methods than about what mechanism you choose and what company does it, as long as they’re capable.”

Agile: The name of the game

Despite the idiosyncrasies among the innovative groups, agile methodology seems to be a common, binding element. Grounded in principles like rapid prototyping, all-hands-on-deck development, customer-centered design, and openness to iteration and pivoting, the way these agile disciples acquire or build services is radically different than traditional waterfall procurement, which GitHub’s Ben Balter said years back “assumes requirements can be predicted upfront. As a result it fails to adequately respond to changing conditions and forces agencies to incur costs disproportionate to project returns.”

After the debacle, agile gained recognition when President Barack Obama enlisted a “tech surge” team of Silicon Valley innovators to rapidly debug the flawed health care website and marketplace. Members of that team would go on to form the permanent U.S. Digital Service team in the White House and publish the “U.S. Digital Services Playbook,” which included agility as one of its key tenets.

“A small group of people came together to work with the feds and other people who were already on the ground in order to turn around a site that was struggling,” Erie Meyer, a founding member of USDS, told FedScoop earlier this year. “The government sort of saw that as a proof of concept of something that could be scaled.”

When Naggar piloted his first HHS Buyers Club procurement to redesign some Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation Web tools, he used the Digital Services Playbook. Rather than basing the technology acquisition on a contractor’s ability to write a convincing proposal, Naggar took small steps to get the final product: He asked for a prototype, brought the entire ASPE team on board and considerably shortened the procurement cycle.

“So often we’re focused on getting something awarded and there’s not enough attention focused on implementation, which is why we’re trying to switch from waterfall to agile,” Naggar told FedScoop. “It’s basically, ‘Congratulations, you won the award,’ they drop the mic and walk out of the room. And in six months you get something and realize it’s not what you wanted, not what you needed.”

Naggar and his boss Bryan Sivak, outgoing HHS chief technology officer, said agile keeps the team focused.

“When you use waterfall, that train can be derailing for six months and you don’t know anything about it,” Naggar said. With agile, though, “what’s going to happen is you’re going to minimize spend hopefully, but you’re also going to reach your destination a lot quicker. While agile may not accomplish everything, you are definitely mitigating your risk substantially.”

To Sivak, another major challenge is the fragmentation of the different teams working on an acquisition.

“The procurement folks say, ‘We’re just interested in making sure that this gets done within a certain timeframe and below a certain cost.’ The lawyers are incentivized by saying, ‘We just want to make sure that there are no protests,'” he said, listing several other examples. “The point is if we can get everybody together from day one” working toward a common goal, “I believe you can solve a lot of these problems.”

While agile is the methodology du jour in the innovative community, there are many different varieties of innovative acquisition, and no one is more valuable than the others. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s “Innovative Contracting Case Studies” manual shows several different legal and innovative techniques that have proven successful in federal government, and OSTP continues to add to it.

Upper level buy in

A revolution of innovators alone cannot change federal IT procurement, however. Their ultimate success relies on capturing the support of the people with budget control — their executive leadership.

And that’s what 18F, USDS, the Buyers Club and others have all seen.

“I think that’s why the Buyers Club has been so successful, because Mark [Naggar] knew he had the support of his CTO,” said Anne Rung, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

Rung herself is a major proponent of innovative acquisition, endorsing several new policies rooted in procuring technology in a more agile manner. During a recent keynote address, the OFPP administrator said she was so bullish on Naggar’s Buyers Club model that she hopes to spread it to every agency.

“We have to create that safe space to say, ‘It’s OK to occasionally fail,'” she told FedScoop. “Failure does not mean you’ll walk away from trying new things or being innovative, but rather to reflect upon what went wrong, fine tune it and try it again.”

Before he left GSA, former Administrator Dan Tangherlini told FedScoop that 18F and the agency were dedicated to “replacing waterfall with agile and saying, ‘Let’s fail fast and fail small rather than fail slow and fail big,’ learn from those failures, go back and then continue to iterate toward something that’s ultimately a better product.” And his successor Denise Roth Turner so far has followed in his footsteps as a supporter of 18F.

New Federal CIO Tony Scott has also gone on the record in support of teams like USDS, and so has his colleague Megan Smith, the federal CTO.

The private sector has learned to embrace failure as a building block of innovation — with the maxim “fail fast, fail often” — but in the public sector, Rung said, “We don’t tolerate any kind of perceived failure. And people immediately walk away and resort to the old way of doing things.”

But more safe spaces to experiment are in the works. Obama’s budget request for fiscal year 2016 proposed launching digital service teams, modeled on 18F and USDS, in all large agencies. Likewise, the request called for the expansion of HHS’ IDEA Lab model to several other agencies.

Even Congress has demonstrated its support for better, smarter IT through acquisition reform. The recently passed Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act should help, too, by handing over IT budget authority to CIOs.

“It gives CIOs greater authority and actually basically says in the law that CIOs need to approve basically all IT acquisitions and contracts, IT budgets across the organization,” Lisa Schlosser, deputy federal CIO, said at the Buyers Club Conference in February. “But tied with that, they’re responsible for making sure that IT solutions are delivered effectively and efficiently.”

Instead of waiting months into the project before they’re given the “winning” proposal, CIOs will be involved from the start, mitigating the risk of disagreeing with the proposal and any loss of work or time caused by that.

“Once the arrow is pointing in the right direction … and everybody is on board,” they can move forward with less risk, Eric Cho, a procurement analyst with the Department of Homeland Security who is helping DHS enact the law, told an audience at a recent AFFIRM event. “There’s no second guessing after that.”

So with teams given the space to experiment around government, upper-level support and some legislative footing, innovative acquisition is swelling to a level unseen before in government with a real chance to effect change.

Still, a massive hurdle remains: transforming the culture that’s so risk averse and deeply ingrained with ineffective but comfortable procurement models.


-In this Story-

18F, Agencies, Anne Rung, Bryan Sivak, challenges, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Departments, Erie Meyer, Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), General Services Administration (GSA), Government IT News, Greg Godbout, HHS Buyers Club, Innovation, Lisa Schlosser, Mark Naggar, Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Procurement, U.S. Digital Service, White House