Buying what works: Case studies in innovative contracting

Last week, the White House announced the launch of the U.S. Digital Service (USDS), a new team of America’s best digital experts dedicated to improving and simplifying the digital experience that people and businesses have with their government.  The USDS team has already begun to make progress by releasing the TechFAR Handbook, a guide that helps explain how Federal agencies can take advantage of existing procurement authorities to execute key plays in the Digital Services Playbook.

The Federal Government has long used its buying power as one of the world’s largest customers to accelerate well-known innovations, from the first microchips to the Global Positioning System (GPS).  Today, Federal agencies continue to leverage innovative procurement practices that spur the private sector to develop advanced technologies to better serve the American people – and to pay only for successful results, not just best efforts.

Today, the Office of Science Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Office of Management and Budget are pleased to release the first version of Innovative Contracting Case Studies, an iterative, evolving document that describes a number of ways Federal agencies are getting more innovation per taxpayer dollar – all under existing laws and regulations. For example, NASA has used milestone-based payments to promote private sector competition for the next generation of astronaut transportation services and moon exploration robots.  The Department of Veterans Affairs issued an invitation for short concept papers that lowered barriers for non-traditional government contractors, which led to the discovery of powerful new technologies in mobile health and trauma care.  The Department of Defense has used head-to-head competitions in realistic environments to identify new robot and vehicle designs that will protect soldiers on the battlefield.

We encourage both private sector stakeholders and public servants to engage in a sustained public discussion, identifying new case studies and improving this document’s usefulness in future iterations.  At the same time, Federal government employees can join a community of practice around innovative contracting by signing up for the new “Buyers Club” email group (open to all .gov and .mil email addresses).  This “Buyers Club” group should provide a useful forum for troubleshooting and sharing best practices across the Federal government, serving everyone from contracting officers with deep expertise in the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) to program managers looking for new ways to achieve their agencies’ missions.

All of these innovative contracting efforts are aligned with President Obama’s management agenda to deliver a 21st century government that is more effective, efficient, and supportive of economic growth, including specific cross-agency initiatives on Smarter IT deliverystrategic sourcing, and shared services.  We encourage readers to join the public discussion of Innovative Contracting Case Studies, or sign up for the Feds-only “Buyers Club” email group.  We look forward to raising awareness about the many ways that the Federal Government can use the power of the purse to deliver powerful and cost-effective technology solutions for the American people.

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Lesley Field is the Deputy Administrator for Federal Procurement Policy at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

GAO: Most agencies still not providing complete data on contractors’ past performance

Although their level of compliance has improved over the last year, most federal agencies still haven’t met established governmentwide targets for providing complete, timely and accurate information on contractors’ past performance, congressional investigators found.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said compliance among the top 10 agencies – based on the number of contracts that each agency needed to evaluate – varied greatly, ranging from 13 percent to 83 percent, as of April.

Only two departments – Defense and Treasury – had compliance rates above 65 percent, said the GAO report released Aug. 7.

The Office of Federal Procurement Policy, or OFPP, which has been trying to improve agency compliance on this issue, had wanted all such departments to reach or exceed that 65-percent threshold by the end of fiscal 2013, GAO said.

Keep reading this article at: http://www.fiercegovernment.com/story/gao-most-agencies-still-not-providing-complete-data-contractors-past-perfor/2014-08-12

‘We’ve got to stop throwing Hail Marys’

The future of federal IT contracting could look a lot like the environment at Google and other high-tech companies, where cutting costs and boosting efficiencies are as routine as breathing. But, say former and current procurement officials, winning the future will still involve knowing the nitty-gritty of what an agency is trying to accomplish with its IT contracts.

Being able to act quickly and effectively in the face of technology that has outpaced government’s ability to buy it effectively is a constant challenge, according to panel discussions at the National Contract Managers Association’s 2014 conference in Washington on July 28. In the face of similar challenges, private industry has adopted shorter development cycles coupled with more agile techniques.

If we want real innovation, we need to stop looking for ways to circumvent the federal acquisition system and work together to improve it, writes Stan Soloway.

Federal agencies are just beginning to do the same.

“We’ve got to stop throwing ‘Hail Marys” at large federal IT projects, Joe Jordan, former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and now president of public sector at FedBid, said during a panel on technology’s impact on acquisition. “It’s got to be broken up into five- to 10-yard passes.”

Keep reading this article at: http://fcw.com/Articles/2014/07/28/No-more-Hail-Marys.aspx?Page=1&p=1

Contractors group would restructure White House procurement shop

Citing a “human capital crisis” in a federal workforce beset by retirements and inexperience, a major contractors group on Monday proposed acquisition reforms that would speed up the procurement process, enhance industry-agency collaboration and reorganize the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy to improve workforce training.

The Professional Services Council’s report joins an array of acquisition reform efforts under way in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill in addressing the need to create contracting officers with a more sophisticated grasp of industry trends in services contracting, particularly in information technology.

“We need to fundamentally rethink the workforce, to create a unified vision across government,” said Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the council, which represents 375 member companies. “It will affect everything from how we prosecute wars to how we operate our business systems. The time for incremental or tactical change has long passed.”

Keep reading this article at: http://www.govexec.com/contracting/2014/07/contractors-group-would-restructure-white-house-procurement-shop/89870/

Read the full report by and recommendations of the Professional Services Council at: The PSC Acquisition and Technology Policy Agenda – 07.28.2014

OFPP nominee lays out agenda

Anne Rung, President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), told lawmakers that she wants to “break down the barriers” that stall innovation in federal acquisition.

At a brisk, sparsely attended confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on July 24, the former chief acquisition officer at the General Services Administration also cited as priorities better category management and giving the acquisition workforce the tools it needs to succeed.

Rung said she is particularly interested in creating topic specialization for acquisition officials. Often people who are buying pens and pencils for their agency are also tasked with major IT purchases.

Keep reading this article at: http://fcw.com/articles/2014/07/24/ofpp-nominee-agenda.aspx

Senate testimony: Intelligence community needs to keep better tabs on its contractors

The 17 agencies in the intelligence community must get a better handle on the extent of their reliance on contractors, witnesses told a Senate panel on Wednesday. Overuse of outsourcing presents risks to both national security and managerial efficiency, senators and an auditor warned.

“Contractors can provide flexibility and unique expertise, but there are risks” if internal controls, formal planning and documentation are inadequate, Timothy DiNapoli, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “Changes to the definition of core contract personnel limit the comparability of the information over time,” he said, noting that the civilian intelligence community agencies used various methods to calculate the number of contract personnel and did not maintain documentation to validate the number of personnel reported for 37 percent of records reviewed. GAO also found that the civilian intelligence community agencies either under- or over-reported contract obligations by more than 10 percent for one-fifth of the records.

Panel Chairman Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said, “The people we entrust with leadership roles at these agencies need to be able to show the American people, and Congress, that they know who is working for them and why.” Overreliance on contractors behind the intelligence agencies’ secrecy walls presents three hazards, Carper said: hollowing out the in-house workforce and making it weaker, requiring extra layers of management and paying more for work that could have been performed by federal employees.

Keep reading this article at: http://www.defenseone.com/management/2014/06/intelligence-community-needs-keep-better-tabs-its-contractors/86758/

Federal IT reform could include bonuses for procurement staff

One plan to overhaul how the government buys and builds information technology systems would establish an awards program for excellent IT acquisition staff, including “monetary incentives.”

Language in the plan passed by the House multiple times – most recently last week — directs the Office of Personnel Management to develop a program “to recognize excellent performance by federal employees and teams in the acquisition of information systems and IT,” a summary of  the legislation said. The bill also “requires such policies to include guidance regarding the award of cash bonuses and other incentives.”

Keep reading this article at: http://www.nextgov.com/cio-briefing/2014/05/federal-it-reform-could-mean-bonuses-procurement-staff/85321

OFPP, FAI launch new acquisition training and certification

The Federal Acquisition Certification in Contracting has not been updated since 2008, but that’s about to change — and the revised FAC-C will include specialized training for IT procurement.

A May 7, 2014 memo from the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) outlined the new certification, and OFPP Associate Administrator Joanie Newhart and Tony Grayson, acquisition program executive at the Federal Acquisition Institute, detailed the curriculum and the thinking behind it during a May 13 presentation at FOSE.

“Nobody’s happier than I am that this certification has been issued,” Newhart said.  The old FAC-C is general and lacks a specific course on Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) fundamentals — whereas the Defense Department’s Defense Acquisition University (DAU) has long offered such training, along with a wide range of advanced coursework.

Keep reading this article at: http://fcw.com/Articles/2014/05/14/OFPP-FAI-new-acquisition-training.aspx?p=1 

‘Reverse Auctions’ draw scrutiny

It is like an eBay of Washington, a well-appointed and well-connected online marketplace for lucrative government contracts.

Deals for everything from pens to pesticides, from painting offices to performing autopsies — all that and more is up for grabs on FedBid, a fast-growing private company that has positioned itself at the profitable nexus of government and business.

Financed by an investment company connected to Stephen M. Case, of AOL fame, and Ted Leonsis, majority owner of the Washington Wizards, FedBid has assembled a roster of Beltway insiders to promote an unusual approach to how contracts are meted out. Its latest big hire is Joseph Jordan, who was until recently head of procurement policy for the Obama administration.

Through FedBid, government agencies use “reverse auctions” — in which the lowest bid wins, rather than the highest — to decide who is awarded contracts. In theory, the process can save money for taxpayers by encouraging businesses to offer the best possible prices. In practice, it also makes a lot of money for FedBid, which can collect fees from the winning bidders who, in turn, pass those costs to the government.

At issue is whether FedBid encourages competition, as its proponents argue, or simply prompts companies to submit unrealistically low bids to outmaneuver business rivals. Detractors contend that awarding contracts based solely on price means that the government risks ending up with inferior products or services, though this is a risk even when the government does not use reverse auctions. A recent government study, which reviewed reverse auctions at top agencies, found that roughly a third of all FedBid auctions involved a single bidder, meaning that they were closer to no-bid contracts than true auctions.

Keep reading this article at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/07/business/reverse-auctions-draw-scrutiny.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20140407&_r=1 

Agencies setting off into the next data frontier — procurement

Agencies are starting to grasp the real value of procurement data. Several agencies are asking the General Services Administration, NASA and others for more details on what they buy, how they buy it and how they could make better decisions.

NASA, for example, is working closely with the Veterans Affairs Department to provide them with an assortment of data points around energy efficiency, such as how VA’s IT products are rated for Energy Star or E-Peat. NASA also plans to provide VA with information about how their purchases meet the Trade Agreements Act and about their buying habits based on product classifications.

Joanne Woytek, the program manager for NASA SEWP governmentwide acquisition contract, said the fact that VA and other agencies are asking for and receiving this type of data is a sign of maturity for both the GWAC providers and the agencies in understanding what’s available and why the data matters.

“I’ve seen this happening more with our contracts and SEWP V. A lot of what we are putting into that is to make it a more mature model. We can’t just say, ‘we can do that,’ we will actually demonstrate the things we can do,” she said at the 2014 Acquisition Excellence conference in Washington Thursday sponsored by GSA, the Homeland Security Department and ACT-IAC. “We will be able to show agencies what they are buying. We’re going to be able to provide them with more information. We always said we could do that, but we actually are going to start doing that. I think that’s going to have a bigger effect on agencies who no longer will say ‘I don’t want to use you because I’m not sure you can give me that information. I’m not sure you can control what we’re purchasing.’ We can do that for them and we’ll actually start showing that. So I see us having a better impact on people now that we’ve gotten to this point.”

Keep reading this article at: http://www.federalnewsradio.com/?nid=533&sid=3587330&pid=0&page=1