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Five contracting tweaks that have yielded 18F better procurements (thus far)

The U.S. government has been buying goods and services from the private sector since its founding, and it’s a necessary part of delivering on its mission of protecting and serving the public. However, there is always room for improvement — and we’ve been fortunate to work with a cross-functional team at the Technology Transformation Services (TTS) that is dedicated to experimenting on incrementally improving the procurement process with our federal agency partners and vendors.

Here are five procurement hacks — both in the context of our Agile Blanket Purchase Agreement (BPA) and in general — that we’ve made in the past few years to make the procurement process a bit more joyful and effective:

1. Creative use of existing GSA Schedules

Not long after 18F’s inception, the demand from partner agencies for help in supporting their efforts to build new digital services skyrocketed. We realized that we needed some new tools to help meet this growing demand.

After some initial discussion, we settled on creating a vehicle that would allow us to select a new pool of vendors that work the way we do — using agile methodologies and user-centered design principles. In early 2015, we announced a new kind of process for vendors to compete for software acquisition contracts. An Agile Blanket Purchase Agreement (BPA) process was open to existing vendors on GSA Schedule 70, and required vendors to submit a working prototype based on a public dataset — and then show their work in a publicly available git repository.

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 could provide continued flexibility down the road as we test out what does and doesn’t work.

That said, the process we used to create our Agile BPA was unique. We wanted prospective vendors to demonstrate their ability to use agile practices, so we asked them to publicly demonstrate their commitment to user-centered design and iterative development by building prototype software in the open. Requiring prospective vendors to adhere to this requirement helped us ensure alignment with 18F’s principle of working in the open, helped reduce risk by replacing a boilerplate RFQ response with working code, and provided transparency into a process that was new for both us and for vendors.

2. Interview-style oral presentations

Our team is primarily interested in helping our partner agencies learn about the skills and approach of the technical talent that will do the job after a procurement. This can be a challenge with traditional written proposals that often contain more fluff than meaningful content. (See procurement hack 5 below.)

As we thought about how to run a streamlined process that would help us quickly assess the technical approaches to our task order solicitations, we got in touch with GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service (FAS) Region 3. They shared their approach of using an “Interview-Style Oral Presentation” — in essence, asking their vendors’ technical team to meet with the government evaluation team to answer questions about how they would approach a contract.

Subsequently, we’ve worked with FAS to use this approach successfully for our first Agile BPA buys. You can find an example of solicitation documentation describing the process in the GitHub repository for our e-QIP procurement. Feedback on this approach has been generally positive from our Agile BPA vendors, and we’ve found it really helps the evaluation team differentiate between the strengths and weaknesses of vendors.

3. Cloud deployment

In our procurements, we’ve pushed to use shorter periods of performance and established best practices to quickly deliver phases of a larger project. In order to support that quick turnaround time, we’ve taken advantage of automated tools and public infrastructure to reduce the burden on vendors while providing greater transparency into the work.

We believe that it’s important — for both us and our clients — to be able to see and test the code in production as soon as possible. Thankfully, cloud.gov makes continuous delivery a hands-off process for our vendor, allowing us to configure automatic deployment to a staging and/or production environment directly from a continuous integration service. With this in place, our vendor never needs to worry about having the right permissions to access the deployment environment — or even where they are physically located — in order to push to production. As an added bonus, cloud.gov provides a number of built-in compliance features, freeing up our vendors to spend more time satisfying user needs.

4. Cross-functional teams

One of the most important ways we support success in our procurements is by assembling cross-functional teams. We don’t look for or hire “unicorn” employees, but rather convene groups of folks who are experts in niche areas who are comfortable with collaboration and thinking outside the box.

In the acquisitions realm, this means groups of technologists, contract leads, product leads, and designers all work together on procurement packages. By breaking down silos, cross-functional teams can help make decisions quicker, deliver work sooner with fewer defects, improve communication flow on projects, and promote knowledge sharing. This model helps us get closer to the needs of our clients, and helps us align with what the FAR envisions in FAR 1.102-3 and FAR 1.102-4 for the Role of the Acquisition Team.

5. Shorter proposals

From the cumulative decades that our team members have spent working as contracting officers, it’s clear that a great deal of effort goes into proposals. However, rather than spend an inordinate amount of time trying to provide convincing assertions instead of demonstrating outcomes, we think it’s more beneficial for both the government (as a buyer), as well as potential contractors (as the sellers) to lower the barrier to entry and make it easier to show rather than tell.

To further that goal, we try to be very discerning about what we ask from potential vendors with each of our projects. When using the Agile BPA, for example, we don’t need the vendors to tell us that they can work in an agile manner; we’ve already determined that. Instead, we can focus on the specifics of the task at hand: how would you propose to fill our client’s needs, who will perform that work, and how much will it cost? If we’ve done our job properly, the offerors should be able to answer those questions with a relatively short response and some examples of that expertise in action. Our goal is to make sure that such exchanges are as simple as possible, and avoid duplicative work with the interview-style oral presentations discussed above.

Continuing the journey to joyful procurement

Our work in tweaking the procurement process to bring more joy has just begun. The above five methods have worked for us in the past few years, and we have no doubt that we’ll be iterating and improving them as we go on. At the TTS Office of Acquisition, we believe that the FAR and TechFAR allow for a great deal of flexibility for government buyers, and we look forward to what the future holds.

Post was written with contributions from Edwin Wong and Mark Hopson.

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