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Modular contracting and working in the open

In 18F’s work with federal and state partners on technology procurements, we often help introduce new concepts like Agile, DevOps, human-centered design, and product thinking to enable our partners to engage with vendors more successfully. One of the critical strategies we bring to these engagements is working in the open.

18F’s partners are typically coming off of a failed relationship with a vendor. A previous project may have ended badly, failed to produce the desired outcomes, and — sometimes — even resulted in litigation. The bottom line is that there may often be a lack of trust between our federal and state partners and the vendors that they must engage with to deliver the digital solutions their constituents expect and need.

A major focus of our acquisition consulting engagements is to help rebuild this trust, and to foster a healthy, productive relationship between agencies and vendors.

One of the ways that we help develop trust and foster a more productive relationship is by designing a collaborative process that is built on transparency — working in the open is an essential ingredient to building better relationships with vendors. A great example of how openness and transparency can foster a more productive relationship between agency and vendor can be seen in our work with the State of Alaska.

After a monolithic contract with a vendor ended poorly, the State of Alaska brought in the 18F team to help them develop new processes and to implement a modular procurement strategy to modernize their legacy public benefit eligibility system. A core component of these new processes and the modular strategy is openness.

Early in our engagement with Alaska, we helped the team in the Division of Public Assistance (DPA) adopt DevOps practices and to establish a build and deployment pipeline to allow the state to accept work from outside vendors. As originally envisioned, the process for vendors to deliver work to the state was to happen via a pull request from a vendor-controlled git repo to a state-controlled git repo at the end of each sprint. In practice, however, the process worked slightly differently and had some unexpected positive results.

The DPA has targeted the Microsoft platform as its technology stack of choice for its legacy system modernization efforts, and uses Visual Studio Team Services (VSTS) to manage work for its CI/CD pipeline and for version control. When the vendor for the first modular contract began work, DPA staff created a git repository within VSTS to house all the project code, and established a separate branch within that repo for the vendor to work in. So, instead of the vendor using its own git repo (either locally, or using another git-based platform like GitHub or Gitlab), they were able to use a separate branch within the main VSTS git repository for this work. At the end of each sprint, the vendor submitted a pull request from their git specific branch to the branch designated by the state for further review and acceptance.

This working arrangement provided enhanced visibility into the vendor’s work. The DPA team could see the work that was occurring in the vendor repo as it was committed each day by vendor staff. This helped state staff understand what was happening during the sprint, and obviated the need to wait until the end of each sprint to start evaluating code. This helped DPA staff better understand what the vendor was doing, and helped foster a sense of trust between the vendor and the state.

Several members of the state team commented on this arrangement and noted that it helped foster a sense of trust and collaboration with the vendor. When we conducted a post mortem after the vendor had finished their work, the Alaska team identified the trusting collaborative nature of the relationship as one of the things that went well with the project.

The lesson from this experience with the State of Alaska is that establishing good DevOps practices and tools and embracing working in the open are not only important to the success of a modular contracting approach, they can help foster more trusting, productive relationships between agencies and vendors.

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