HHS, Navy, seek to stay one step ahead of tech trends through agile acquisition

A wide spectrum of agencies has stressed the need to speed up procurement and solicit ideas on how to make the process more innovative to ensure they’re not ...

Faced with an accelerating rate of change in emerging technology, a wide spectrum of agencies has stressed the need to speed up procurement and solicit ideas on how to make the process more innovative to ensure they’re not signing up to buy yesterday’s technology tomorrow.

In the defense community, for example, James Geurts, the assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, said the service faces some of the most demanding deadlines for turnaround — going from “compile to combat” within 24 hours.

“I want you to be able to write code and in 24 hours have it compiled through all the integration checks, all the cyber checks, disseminated all around the world and uploaded on the combat system. You’re not going to be able to do that just by doing the old process faster,” Geurts said Thursday at GovernmentCIO’s Acquisition Innovation forum.

Part of developing an agile acquisition culture, he said, comes from developing the right workforce, which includes borrowing talent from the private sector for a few years.

“We are all challenged with getting talent in the depth and breadth that we need, and we’re not going to be able to do it as a Navy all organically,” Geurts said. “So then, how do we create a much more fluid talent mechanism, where it’s OK for you to come into government for two years and learn, and then bounce back out, or vice versa, where we can create programs to leverage each other and break down some of the barriers,” Geurts said. “The revolving door, to my mind, ought to be much faster.”

But another part of the challenge is getting the Navy’s innovators in touch with the commands that could benefit from new ideas.

“The challenge in the Navy, it’s a very widespread set of missions — everything from submarines to aircraft carriers to ships — and we’re fairly dispersed … so the real issue for the Navy was connecting ourselves to ourselves,” Geurts said. “You could be in Newport, [Rhode Island], which may be our cluster for undersea innovation, and have a great idea that could help, say, the aircraft side of the Navy, and have no way to arc that gap.”

But in order to bridge that gap, the Navy has launched NavalX, a platform aimed at connecting Navy operations with the innovators who have new tools to test and implement. Geurts said the team behind NavalX has launched a project aimed at helping innovators “broadcast” their ideas across the Navy.

“One little innovation hub is not the secret to the Department of the Navy’s innovation. It is connecting up all of our vast pockets of innovation occurring in isolation,” Geurts said.

As part of this strategy, the Navy has also rolled out playbooks aimed at coaching its acquisition workforce on ways to connect with innovative small businesses that are new to working with the federal government.

“If you’ve got ideas and you want to walk in the door, if you don’t know how to do business with us, we’ll link you up with a small business professional, one of our buying professionals,” Geurts said. “If you’ve got an idea that you just don’t know where to shop it in the Navy, this NavalX team is here to work across it.”

How to speed up acquisition without sacrificing quality

The health care sector has also felt the pressure to modernize its acquisition process. Oki Mek, the chief technology officer at the Health and Human Services Department, said the Office of Management and Budget has urged agencies to take an agile approach under the President’s Management Agenda.

“We do something small and then we move up in a two-or-three-week sprint, using human-centered design,” Mek said.

And in the case of HHS, the agency has delivered on those agile acquisition goals. Through HHS Accelerate, the first blockchain solution to receive an authority to operate in the federal government, the department can comb through acquisition data from its component agencies and determine the lowest prices on commonly purchased goods like medical exam gloves and pipettes.

Mek said HHS Accelerate holds the key to faster acquisitions with more accurate data, comparing the impact to moving to tax software like TurboTax after years of filing tax returns on paper.

“That’s what we’re trying to do in terms of acquisition — really focusing on the TurboTax model, digitizing the data, building a good data taxonomy, analyzing the data, then sharing the data,” Mek said. “It’s the future of how you modernize and run IT.”

Lesley Field, the deputy administrator at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, has overseen some of the administration’s work on category management, aimed at reducing contract duplication and freeing up the acquisition workforce to handle more meaningful tasks.

“For the most part, probably five or 10 years ago, folks were really doing things on their own,” Fields said. “When you get that kind of fragmentation, you’re not getting the best pricing and you’re really putting a lot of burden on the industry.”

Within the past year, the 24 agencies under the Chief Financial Officer Act have been tasked with coming up with an “innovation advocate” whose job involves getting new ideas from the procurement workforce, which Field said has given each agency’s acquisition the “top cover” to experiment with new ideas.

“In our community, it really helps to have senior managers say, ‘It’s OK to take a chance, it’s OK to take a risk. I’ll be behind you.’ And that’s what these innovation advocates are meant to do,” Field said.

Field also stressed the need for greater agility in the acquisition process, but said speed can’t come at the price of quality.

“We absolutely need to move faster, and I think we need to share some of those practices … It can save a tremendous amount of time and a lot of money reduces the burden on both sides of the equation,” Field said. “That’s really important, but I also think we need to make sure that we don’t throw out some of the really important principles that the acquisition system is based on just for speed.”

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