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Announcing the Agile BPA awards: A conversation about the process

In January, 18F Consulting announced a new kind of process for vendors to compete for software acquisition contracts. The Agile Blanket Purchase Agreement (BPA) process would be open to existing vendors on Schedule 70, and require vendors to submit a working prototype based on a public dataset — and then show their work in a publicly available git repository.

A number of decision factors led to the request for information (RFI) and then the request for quotation (RFQ). Over the last few months, the demand for 18F to build products for agencies has been explosive. To meet this demand, we realized that we needed help from outside vendors who work the way we do — using techniques like agile development cycles and user-centered design processes. We’ve also identified the need for a contract vehicle through which agencies can gain access to a pool of vendors that work in this way as well.

Our partner throughout this project has been the Federal Acquisition Service (FAS), and before we talk about the BPA process, we want to acknowledge how much we learned from FAS, and how grateful we are for the time and effort they have put into this award process. Though 18F served as the requirements owner of this effort, the Integrated Technology Services (ITS) office within FAS executed the contracting work through the award phase and the Assisted Acquisition Services (AAS) office will handle post-award task orders and management. Throughout this process, we worked closely with a number of people at GSA’s Southeast Sunbelt Region, including our contracting officer and his team, to help make the Agile BPA happen. Going forward, FAS officers in GSA’s Pacific Rim Region will be issuing the task orders on the BPA. These awards could not have been issued without them. We want to thank them, and are looking forward to working with them again in the future.

The vendors are:

  1. Acumen Solutions Inc
  2. Agileana
  3. Applied Information Sciences Inc
  4. Booz Allen Hamilton Inc
  5. DSoft Technology Company
  6. Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc.
  7. Flexion Inc.
  8. NCI Information Systems Inc
  9. PricewaterhouseCoopers Public Sector LLP
  10. SemanticBits
  11. TechFlow Inc
  12. TeraLogics LLC
  13. Three Wire Systems LLC
  14. True Tandem LLC
  15. Vencore Services and Solutions Inc
  16. Ventera Corporation
  17. World Wide Technology

They represent large companies and small businesses, from all over the country. But the unifying theme amongst them is that they delivered amazing, working software in response to our RFQ.

As the first set of awards (Pool Three) are now being issued, we asked three members of the 18F Consulting team to sit down together and share what they’ve learned throughout the process.

The panel:

  • Chris Cairns, Director, 18F Consulting

  • Dave Zvenyach, Director of Acquisition Management, 18F Consulting

  • Kathryn Edelman, Consultant, 18F Consulting

A look into the BPA process

You’ve been working non-stop on the Agile BPA process for the past six months. This is the week the awards are coming out. What are you doing this week and how do you feel?

We’re currently moving slowly through the process to make sure we are doing all of the right things to make this BPA good for the federal government.

One thing to emphasize: while we’re incredibly excited about the award of the Agile BPA, getting to this point is actually just the first step. We think we were successful in demonstrating some solid innovation with the award process, but we’ve got a long way to go now before we can declare success on what really matters: demonstrating the ability to partner with industry to deliver successful digital services to our customers using agile delivery practices.

In other words, as with the rest of 18F, delivery is the strategy, and now we’re looking forward to shipping under the BPA.

What were you expecting or hoping to see from vendors after you announced the Agile BPA process?

We weren’t totally sure what we’d get. We knew that there was a lot of interest, but we weren’t sure whether that would translate into submissions. We ultimately hoped that there would be great vendors out there who could ship solid, working software in a short amount of time. We also hoped that vendors would be excited to show us their capabilities rather than describe them.

I saw many vendors working in public online. Could you point to some examples of what you saw throughout the process?

We were completely blown away by certain unexpected and awesome things. We saw many independent creations of GitHub repos by vendors — and we even saw someone who was outside the award process, who created a repo to track vendor submissions as they came in. We saw tweets, blog posts, and even live video of vendors working together on code. Dave remembers chatting with a colleague about how there was all of this activity going on for a government contract, and that’s when he realized that this was definitely different from other procurements.

The deadline for the Agile BPA was pushed back several times because vendors had questions about the process. What were they asking?

Before we answer this, it’s important to understand how RFQs generally work. After an RFQ is issued, there’s usually an official question and answer period for vendors to ask questions about the project.

Before the RFQ release, we held a pre-solicitation conference so we could preview the RFQ to vendors and answer questions, with the goal of reducing the questions during the official Q&A period. Despite that, after the release, hundreds more questions still poured in — mostly on technical or contracting issues. To respond to this volume, we missed our own answer deadline, and that ended up pushing back the vendors’ deadline to respond.

To be honest, the delay was something that, at the time, really frustrated the team. But, in hindsight, one of the things we’re most proud of is how both we learned from the process and plan to be smarter about it next time around. Our partner FAS helped us move the process along. By dividing the questions between the contracting officer and the technical team, we were able to give precise answers — it just took more time than we expected.

Based on this experience, we learned ways to be smarter about how we structure the question-and-answer process. We also learned that we could have done a better job communicating what was going on during that process. We’re excited for the next round, and will improve on the experience.

What can you tell us about the review process itself? Was there anything special about how you approached the technical evaluations?

In some respects, this was our favorite part of the process. Our evaluation team worked through the proposals with the contracting officer and his team.

Because we had some of 18F’s own top technical talent involved, we were able to automate some elements of the technical evaluation that enabled a faster, more efficient, and more accurate review process for everyone involved. We’ve also learned a lot about what contracting officers and other officials — not to mention vendors — experience and hope to continue to build on some of the things we did in the BPA evaluation process to make the process easier for everyone.

Now that awards have been made, what should those companies expect from 18F?

First, they should soon expect to begin seeing opportunities to do what they do best: deliver working solutions to government customers that showcase the ability of agile processes to transform the way we buy and build digital services.

Second, they should expect to maintain an ongoing dialogue with us about what works and what doesn’t on a project-by-project basis. We view the vendor community as “users” of the Agile BPA, and their feedback, knowledge, and insight will help us continue to find ways to innovate and improve the acquisition process.

Third, they should expect to see us continue to experiment with ways to improve the procurement process. Our end goal is to reduce the friction associated with doing business with the government. This allows delivery teams to focus on the end user experience, driving better solutions at lower costs.

What about vendors who did not receive awards? Is that it for them?

Not at all. We hope to build in a mechanism to “on-ramp” new vendors who are interested and able to perform and off-ramp vendors who may no longer be a good fit. This is one of the many concepts that we hope to test out in the alpha phase, to figure out what makes sense for vendors, while ensuring that 18F and our customers are getting the highest quality vendors in the marketplace.

How will the first projects or clients use the vendors that were awarded the Agile BPA?

Because we still have a lot to learn, we want to start with a few smaller-scale projects out of the gate, where we can work closely with our customer agencies and the vendors to observe and measure what works and what doesn’t throughout the full life cycle of each project. We’ll gradually expand the number and type of projects to meet demand.

When will the process start?

It’s already started! As any government contracting officer will tell you, it’s never too early to start good acquisition planning, and we’ve been doing just that: talking to our in-house delivery and consulting teams and our agency partners to identify projects that we think are a good fit.

What are your metrics to measure whether or not the Agile BPA is successful?

The 18F mantra of “always be shipping” applies here as well. We hope to see usable code out in the world quickly on all of our projects, which shows that vendors are using agile principles and methodologies to deliver stuff their customers want and can use.

Second, we expect to see demand from the marketplace for the Agile BPA services grow over time.

How the BPA works

Why was the BPA competed among existing vendors on GSA IT Schedule 70?

In order to establish a marketplace, we needed access to a broad pool of vendors, and IT Schedule 70, which sits in FAS ITS, has thousands of vendors.

A BPA under Schedule 70 gave us significant flexibility to create the type of contract vehicle we thought we’d want to work with: one that could be awarded relatively quickly, that would provide for a more efficient and streamlined ordering process, and that can provide continued flexibility down the road as we test out what does and doesn’t work.

As fully envisioned, with this BPA in place, what will it do for agencies? In other words, how will agencies use it and how will it benefit them?

Agencies will have access to vendors who use agile practices and focus on user needs. In our work, we’ve demonstrated that using agile practices creates more usable and customer-valued software, gives agencies more flexibility to respond to changes in business priorities and technology, and is a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

We didn’t invent these practices. The industry has been using them successfully for over a decade. What we’re doing is creating a contract vehicle featuring agile delivery vendors who can support the IT acquisition needs of buyers across the federal government.

As it stands now, how does an agency go about finding and purchasing agile services?

Based on what we’ve seen in the marketplace to date, agencies typically create new or use existing vehicles local to their organization or department. This can mean using their own BPAs, or other similar contract options to get things done. We sometimes describe this as using their existing “acquisition stack” to figure out what tools are at their disposal.

And what would the process be if I work at an agency and want to use the Agile BPA?

Right now, we’re managing this the same as other prospective 18F projects via our intake team. Agencies should email us at inquiries18f@gsa.gov with information about their problem or project. As we learn more about how to work with other agencies on the BPA, we will refine the process.

And what’s the process if I’m a vendor and want to get on this Agile BPA? What can I do?

Please stay tuned! We know you’re out there, and as we get this thing off the ground, we’ll keep everyone posted on what the on-ramping process will look like once we’re ready for it.

What sort of companies was the Agile BPA aimed at?

This was aimed at companies that work the way 18F does — in an agile, user-centered fashion. We were looking for design firms that could turn around a prototype in just a few weeks, user researchers that could survey users to provide information before an opening sprint, and developers that use open source code rather than “reinventing the wheel.”

A collaborative effort looks ahead

How did 18F work with its sister offices within the General Services Administration (GSA) on this initiative?

18F and the Federal Acquisition Service (FAS) are partners in this endeavor, but support for this initiative spans up, down, and across the organization. We worked closely with a number of people at GSA’s Southeast Sunbelt Region, including our contracting officer and his team, to help make the Agile BPA happen. Going forward, FAS contracting officers in GSA’s Pacific Rim Region will be issuing the task orders on the BPA. FAS has been talking about the need for federal IT to transform its approach from waterfall to agile for quite a while.The Agile BPA, combined with other 18F and FAS procurements, is our to bid make this change happen on a large scale.

What was FAS’s reaction to some of the things you wanted to do in the BPA?

We really think that our contracting officer deserves a great deal of credit for the BPA. He recognized at an early stage that this was going to be unusual in many respects. Rather than shut it down, though, he worked hard to understand our goals and to help us understand the constraints and options. In the end, there were definitely lessons learned on both sides, but it’s safe to say we could not have done this without our contracting officer’s willingness to be open and receptive to our way of doing things.

Could you talk a little bit about how you make the procurements themselves reflect agile development practices?

Sure. There are at least three specific examples. First, we expect to be iterative and test, learn, and refine as we go. Second, we plan to focus on continuous improvement, and use retrospectives with vendors and agencies to ensure great results. And third, internally, we’re using small, cross-functional teams in the preparation of an acquisition under the BPA through final delivery of the software.

Three years from now, what would be your dream scenario?

A couple of things: that we have a proven track record under the BPA, or other vehicles, of successful agile delivery projects completed and available for the world to see and judge for themselves. That we’ve identified at least a few more successful recipes in the agile delivery and acquisition cookbook that agencies can implement successfully on their own. And that we’ve busted at least a few of the myths that the federal government isn’t a home for digital innovation.

Lastly, why is this important for FAS and 18F?

It’s important for 18F and FAS because it gives us another way to deliver value for our partner agencies. We recognized at the outset that the demand for transformative digital services would outpace our ability to hire people into 18F, and that we’d want to work with industry, an incredible source of innovation, to help us ship. But, it’s also important because we have a lot empathy for industry, who are trying to ship quality software for agency partners, too. By working together, we can build a contract vehicle that meets our needs, but also aligns with our vendors’ expectations of how to get things done.

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