DHS procurement chief: ‘Let’s take some chances’ to innovate

Soraya Correa, DHS chief procurement officer

Federal News Radio’s Jason Miller talks to Department of Homeland Security Chief Procurement Officer Soraya Correa about DHS’ new Procurement Innovation Lab.

The Department of Homeland Security is taking a page from startup culture. With the agency’s Procurement Innovation Lab, DHS is trying to embrace the “fail fast” mantra made famous in Silicon Valley and inject innovation into an area of government that’s become more risk-averse as of late.

The lab, known as the PIL for short, represents “an opportunity for members of the contracting community to come forward with ideas of how to improve procurement processes,” DHS chief procurement officer Soraya Correa recently told Jason Miller.

Correa’s had the idea in her head for some time and worked quickly to get it up and running once she entered her role at the helm of the procurement process within Homeland Security.  From how to evaluate proposals to how  staff review documents and solicitations, the PIL will turn on its head the entire buying process so that it can grow with the times and become better in every way.

Why does Correa think the procurement community is well-positioned to innovate?

“We are the people that probably know our business processes the best and can come up with the best ideas on how we can shorten our lead times, streamline the processes and improve how we buy,” she said.

It’s not just DHS procurement officers either who can suggest new ideas through the innovation lab; anyone involved in the procurement process is eligible to take part.

Correa said that’s why step one has been to hold learning events, which she refers to as cafes, and webinars so that a wide swath of workers are aware the PIL exists.

A virtual lab, not a physical one

Even though “lab” is in the name of the program there’s no physical place associated with the PIL. Rather, it’s a virtual lab, an established, solidified framework in which procurement staff can bring forth their ideas about betterment.

Correa said she’s assigned a few individuals to be the ones who assess the ideas generated via the innovation lab concept. Their task is to sit down with the person making a suggestion, to lay out the step by step way the idea could unfold and then make a determination. Legal counsel will also be involved so that there are assurances any new procurement solutions don’t pose challenges on that front.

For those ideas that clear each of these hurdles, she said the race is on to give it a try.

“They go back to their office and they process the procurement. We’re kind of looking over their shoulder, following them through the steps of the process to make sure they do it right,” Correa said. “But it’s really working through their office. It’s not a bunch of people sitting in a room or us taking over the procurement. We want them to own the process. We want them to be invested in that process and we want to reward them if it works. And if it fails? It belongs to me. Because that’s how we take risks.”

Part of a larger cultural transportation

In the startup world, rules are made to be broken and risk is a coveted value. In stark contrast, it’s not often embraced in the federal government. A big reason behind the PIL is to change this, to make risk – so long as it’s smart and calculated – a more viable, doable option.

“It’s saying, ‘Let’s take some chances,’” she said.

Leaders in agencies, like hers, must be the catalyst for innovation. That’s why she said she needs to provide cover, to protect any procurement staff who wants to experiment in case the attempt proves to be less than a smashing success.

At the beginning of the fiscal year the PIL also will widen its scope from within the federal structure to allow for input from the industry.

As DHS’ procurement innovation lab grows, the hope is to be able to tell those with ideas within a week or two if what they’ve come up with is a yes or a no. And the no response should be “few and far between,” Correa said.

“I don’t think there’s anything out there we shouldn’t try,” she said.

DHS is, in many ways, ahead of the curve on a trend that’s only gaining steam. Innovation labs, especially to improve procurement processes and procedures, are becoming a bigger and bigger push across agencies.

And DHS itself has seen a host of changes in the past year to become a more cohesive agency  under the leadership of Secretary Jeh Johnson. Particularly, the creation of a joint requirement council to coordinate and better track high-volume buying. DHS also has completely overhauled its budget process, in part, because of the coordination from the joint requirements council. Plus, a new Acquisitions Innovations in Motion initiative is aiming to more widely open the channels of communication about contracting.