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The Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) is shifting its digital services training program from pilot mode to fully operational, and is giving agencies a hard deadline of 2022 to train and begin buying technology using these approaches .
Three years after issuing a challenge to the vendor community to help change the way agencies buy technology, the Digital IT Acquisition Professional Program is ready for broad usage.
OFPP and the U.S. Digital Service unveiled in a blog post the new core-plus certification in Contracting for Digital Service.
“This is a specialization for our core federal acquisition certification for contracting. We realized in the new world of digital services in the government that program, that model wouldn’t work to teach contracting folks to buy digital services,” Joanie Newhart, the associate administrator for acquisition workforce at OFPP, said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “We cooked up this program with help from vendors through a Challenge.gov process. We have tested this out a couple of times and now the certification indicates that it’s ready to go live and be scaled out. We are pretty excited about this new way of training and developing folks.”
Fostering a culture of delivery
OFPP and USDS launched the challenge in May 2015, putting up $360,000 for a vendor to develop the new approach to training contracting officers and contracting specialists. A team led by ICF and ASI Government won the challenge in October and began developing and testing out the training.
Over the last three years, 54 contracting professionals graduated from the Digital IT Acquisition Professional (DITAP) Program.
“Several graduates of the program have worked directly with U.S. Digital Service agency teams and [GSA’s] 18F to execute contracts,” Newhart and Traci Walker, the director of digital service procurement with the U.S. Digital Service, wrote in the blog post. “Their accomplishments include: code challenges, blanket purchase agreements which foster a culture around delivery of working products, user centered design challenges, trainings and consultations with agency leadership around the adoption of digital service techniques such as user centered design and agile software development.”
With the DITAP ready to expand, OFPP told agencies that any technology purchase worth more than $7 million must be handled by a contracting officer or specialist that has earned this FAC-C-DS certification.
Walker said OFPP chose the $7 million threshold because that’s the limit under the simplified acquisition threshold.
“If you can do this for $7 million as a modular purchase, that is considered low risk,” she said. “Anything above that gets into higher risk acquisitions and you will need a certified professional who understands the right strategies and knowledge of the market.”
ICF will offer the first course under this new program with registration starting June 18. OFPP and USDS said students remain on their job, but spend about 12 hours per week for about six months to earn the certification.
Need for specialized workforce growing
Walker said in an interview the need for agencies to have a specialized workforce to buy cloud, open source and agile software development is only getting more important as the administration pushes hard on IT modernization.
“When I started working on these kinds of acquisitions about six or seven years ago, there was no manual or guidebook, there was nothing that told you how to buy these. But you knew there were inherent differences between that and buying tables and chairs,” Walker said. “One of the things with iterative development and being able to move rapidly, if you put that in an inflexible contract, agile processes are going to break.”
The courses blend best practices from cost-type contracts and time-and-materials type approaches.
“Those contracting methods necessary to do that require more strategy around them. It requires us to look at modular contracting, commercial purchasing and employing the best strategies from industry right up to the line before you have to go into government compliance,” Walker said. “There was nothing out there to really hone in on that. So this development program actually created new strategies and new methodologies that say what are the best ways to buy these kinds of services or goods, not just applying the same procurement methodology across the services.”
Newhart and Walker wrote in the blog the courses are built upon an experiential model where the program immerses students in the digital service world through a combination of self-directed and applied learning, hands-on skill building, access to experts, and team-based assignments.
OFPP paid for the initial creation of the program, but Newhart said agencies will have to pay for their employees to go through the training at the Federal Acquisition Institute.
OFPP and USDS have tried over the last five or so years to move the government toward buying digital services in a new way. OFPP released a digital services playbook in 2014, detailing 13 best practices designed to help agencies deliver products and services more quickly.
In 2015, the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management approved new hiring authorities for agencies to bring on digital services experts more easily, mostly for technical positions.
And in 2016, OFPP and GSA launched the TechFAR hub on the Acquisition Gateway to give contracting officers advice and help to buy digital services in a central location.
But all of these efforts educated the acquisition workforce slowly, while the hope is for DITAP to quicken the pace of training.
“We need to target the folks that are actually buying the digital services first so they have the skills that they need. Then over time, it can be broadened to folks who want to buy digital services or need a new way to look at things,” Newhart said.
Walker added USDS and OFPP hope private sector vendors pick up the DITAP curriculum and provide training to program managers and others in the acquisition community.
“Three or four years ago, agile was just this new term people were throwing around and it was the buzz word that people were kind of throwing around,” she said. “Now, agencies are not just saying we need to do this, but how do we need to do this. They are implementing this and learning what they need to do.”
She added that graduates from the program understand the safeguards needed for adopting those strategies.
“That is a lot of what we do and teach. When you start to iterate, what do you do when it goes off the rails?” she said. “You plan for that at the beginning of the acquisition not for when or if it does happen. We also look at what does success look like and how do we scale success? Those are things we are talking about now that we weren’t talking about before.”