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Using agile methods to improve the RFP process

“Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness.” - James Thurber

One of the fundamental principles of agile is continuous improvement — the idea that each successive iteration can be improved upon by critically examining what happened previously and looking for ways to improve.

This is often not how we conduct government procurements, which are typically viewed as one-off, bespoke exercises that occur infrequently and in isolation. Ironically enough, even when governments are issuing solicitations for agile software development services, they seldom apply agile principles to improving the way that these solicitations are developed and managed.

At 18F, our core mission is to help our federal and state partners become better builders and buyers of digital services. In our work with federal agencies and state governments, we employ a variety of tools and strategies aimed at streamlining procurements, reducing risk and using agile methodologies to develop digital services that work for users. Part of this work involves using the principles of agile to help our partners improve the way that the procurement process works, particularly for vendors that may be new to government contracting.

In our work with the State of Alaska, we’ve embraced transparency and openness in the development of RFPs and related documents, and leveraged GitHub to reach out with and interact with prospective vendors. This approach has also allowed us to iterate on the RFP documents themselves, by first publishing a draft version of these documents publicly and allowing vendors and other stakeholders to comment and ask questions, and then incorporating those comments into the final RFP.

We’re also iterating on our process by looking critically at the initial procurement by the State of Alaska and identifying things that worked well and those that didn’t.

Building on the work we’re doing with Alaska and other partners, here are some ideas for how you can apply the principle of continuous improvement to your procurement process:

Ask vendors for feedback

By engaging with vendors early and often, agencies can increase their chances of getting more numerous and higher quality responses to RFPs. Keeping vendors in the loop and asking for feedback as you develop procurement documents is a great way to ensure that what you’re asking vendors for is clearly articulated and described.

Part of the vendor engagement process involves asking vendors to give you feedback on the procurement process once an award has been made and to get suggestions for future changes that can improve the process. By understanding what vendors liked and didn’t like about your procurement process, you can work to ensure that as many vendors as possible submit bids.

In our work with the State of Alaska, we used a simple Google Form to solicit vendor feedback after an award had been made. In soliciting this feedback, we cast our net far and wide and asked both firms that had submitted bids for feedback as well as those that expressed an interest but did not submit bids. After the comment period closed, we posted excerpts and a summary of the comments we received to the state’s GitHub organization. This was an important aspect of our work to solicit comments from vendors — we believe being open and transparent about the kinds of feedback vendors provide is an important part of signaling to the vendor community that you take their feedback seriously and intend to use it.

Hold a retro

In agile software development, retrospectives are a way for a team to reflect on the work done in the previous sprint to highlight things that have gone well, and also to talk about things that could be improved going forward. At 18F, we work with our partners in cross functional teams that include a range of skill sets needed to successfully develop an RFP, select a vendor, and work with a vendor post award.

Every member of our combined 18F and partner team — contracting officers, product owner, technology leads, designers, etc — brings something to the table that is needed to help ensure a successful procurement. Employing the principles of agile retrospectives to our work allows each member of our team to offer ideas for how the next procurement can be improved.

After the initial procurement in Alaska concluded, we conducted an internal post-mortem on how the the procurement was run to get our team’s thoughts and ideas on what worked well and what didn’t. We also critically evaluated our use of GitHub as a way to develop procurement documents and engage with vendors.

Each of these exercises provides valuable information that can be used to improve how vendors are engaged on public sector technology procurements. Each new procurement in a modular contracting strategy becomes an opportunity to improve on the one that came before — helping identify vendors that will enable governments to deliver high quality digital services to the public.

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