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3 ways for digital acquisition teams to work better

In early June, 18F announced the launch of the Digital Acquisition Accelerator, a 6-8 month program aimed at creating change agents within two agencies to inspire a culture shift towards modern digital acquisition practices. In short, this Accelerator helps agencies be better “buyers” of products within the government. This past month, the Accelerator launched its first cohort introducing the concepts of human-centered design, lean-agile methodologies, open innovation, and modular contracting to cross-functional teams of contracting officers, developers, program managers, and product owners from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

As we work through this pilot phase of the Accelerator, we’ll be sharing our work and the lessons we learn. We hope this will help other interested teams follow along and also give the public an opportunity to give us feedback on our pilot. Below are three techniques that our team practiced with the FBI and Treasury teams during the recent kickoff of the pilot.

1. Test hypotheses with real users

Designing digital products around government services can get tricky, especially when products have to serve a wide net of users — from tech-savvy millennials who know the latest technology trends to seniors looking to receive their social security benefits. A goal of training was to have participants undergo hands-on experience with building fictional products with real users. Through this exercise, the agency teams learned how to apply lean startup principles such as:

  • A mindset of experimentation over elaborate planning
  • Customer feedback instead of intuition
  • Iterative design

Teams thought through their product in terms of the value it provided to customers via the Value Proposition canvas to find out if their product met users’ needs.

Participants were challenged to get out of the building and test their initial hypotheses and assumptions about their fictional product. They asked 3-5 real users questions to validate if their hypotheses were correct, synthesized their findings, saw how their hypotheses changed, and created new questions to validate new assumptions. Armed with this new view of their product, they went out and interviewed users once again.

Feedback collected through this customer discovery work reshaped their value proposition and helped give them insights into what should be their fictional product’s minimum viable product (MVP). Participants built their MVP prototype, and got out of the building one more time — but this time they were running experiments with real potential customers to see what worked and what needed improvement. This took their ideas from abstract brainstorming to concrete reactions from real people, and taught them lessons they could apply immediately to their products.

2. Bring like-minded changemakers into the same room

One of the biggest takeaways of the training week was bringing product teams from different agencies together to learn together as a cohort. In a challenging environment where legacy software systems, policy restrictions, and lengthy contracts can hamper new ways of approaching product development, it’s easy for teams looking to be more agile to become discouraged. Our model emphasizes having a cohort that allows for cross-functional as well as cross-agency networking and learning. This was so effective that the agency teams expressed interest in continuing to meet together as a cohort, even beyond the conclusion of the training.

3. Adopt open communication tools

Culture shift in procurement practices not only requires changes in mindset but also in methods. One major challenge faced by many government agencies today is restrictions on the type of productivity tools and software allowed within agencies. During the first day of training, we asked participants, “what tools do you currently use for communication?” Popular responses included “instant messaging, email, telephone, and face-to-face meetings.” Generally the participants in the room found that this was not always the best ways to work, but only work with the tools that were provided for them. To help the teams shift their methods to match the new mindset they were learning, we suggested they seek out tools that could help them streamline communication, collaboratively manage a product backlog, and collaborate on open software and solicitations.

Bringing it all together

“This is a pilot.” reads the final slide of our kickoff presentation for the Digital Acquisition Accelerator. This was placed there deliberately: we embrace the experimentation that we teach and seek feedback to validate our own assumptions and biases like we teach in our training bootcamp. We’re piloting this program as much within the government as we are within the FBI and Treasury.

We know that the best way to improve this pilot is to be proactive about talking about our work and to constantly seek feedback from participants and the public. We have already started using the feedback that we’ve gotten from the teams to shape this pilot, and we continue to share our work through blog posts like this so the public can see how the federal government is embracing modern design and development. Next, we’ll be launching a three-part series that outlines our methodology on how to understand and scope a product out before you write a solicitation to vendors to build out a solution. To ensure you’re not missing these updates, subscribe to our mailing list.

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