Homeland Security Department contracting officers had a problem — conducting market research is a constant struggle.
And with the Biden administration’s push to expand the industrial base, particularly with more small and disadvantaged businesses, acquisition workers needed some extra help.
Scott Simpson, the digital transformation lead in the Office of the Chief Procurement Officer at DHS, said the Procurement Innovation Lab’s new artificial intelligence for market research tool is improving and accelerating the search for new contractors.
“The acquisition workforce kept coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, we need help with market research. We don’t know where to start. We’ve had a lot of tough customers out there that also don’t know where to start. What can you do for us?’” Simpson said after speaking at a recent ATARC procurement event. “We had a couple of vendors on contract, and we said they’re doing AI work for us already. Why don’t we talk with them? Our users went through a discovery session with those vendors, and that led into development. The users were on board the whole time looking at mockups and wireframes, and all that kind of stuff. Users went into development and testing, and they came up with these three tools. The AI for market research tools, by the three companies, went live in September. We awarded three governmentwide contracts that anyone across federal government can use.”
The AI for market research tools scrape public databases like SAM.gov, USASpending.gov and the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation looking for companies who have done work in a specific sector before such as cybersecurity or software development.
Simpson said user receives not just the company’s names, but information about the agencies they worked for previously, whether they are a large or small business as well as socioeconomic class and a host of other data to help contracting officers see who is available.
“The most relevant vendors are at the top and the least relevant are at the bottom. It doesn’t show all of the vendors in the whole world because that would be a lot of work. But it samples them and shows you like a good 20 to 100, or something like that,” he said. “You can flip through and see which ones you think are capable or not. It shows you the exact record for why they think they are relevant.”
Pilot includes 200 users
From that list contracting officers can perform more targeted market research, limiting their searches to specific governmentwide acquisition contracts or calling a handful of companies asking them to respond to a request for information.
“We’re really hoping that this market research tool helps to speed along the process, and give people that starting point to start their market research,” Simpson said. “This is that starting point showing them trends about where people have bought this in the past from other governmentwide agency contracts or from agencies specific contracts, as well as the other big question that we got was, should this be set aside for small business? This helps to show you people who has set this aside for small business before and people who have not, and gives you that information at the start.”
DHS launched the pilot with about 200 users last fall from every component. Simpson said the PIL is measuring progress and impact through a qualitative survey.
He said DHS conducted a survey before the pilot kicked off last fall asking how contracting officers performed market research at that time and how they rated the quality of their efforts to include how much competition they received.
AI tool available to non-DHS users
“We’ll do that again after our six-to-nine month pilot to measure what’s going to be that return on investment if we keep going down this path. We were hoping that the time spent doing market research goes down, and the quality of that market research goes up,” Simpson said. “The reaction so far has been positive. One of the reasons we wanted to do the pilot is just to work out the kinks. This is really the first time that they’re seeing these systems in a live setting. You can beta test with dummy data all you want, but until you get it out in the field and start doing this with live data, you never really know what you want in a system. This is that time to say, ‘Well, hey, I liked this, but I don’t like this, or this needs to be refined.’”
The AI for market research tool isn’t just for DHS and its component agencies. Simpson said any agency can take advantage of the tools. DHS has briefed the Chief Acquisition Officer’s Council and the Acquisition Innovation Advocates Council about the technologies.
“There are other agencies out there that are definitely looking at doing their own pilots. There’s one agency that’s potentially looking at using the beta licenses to start their market research pilot,” he said. “There’s interest out there because people are hungry for these things that helped to reduce some of that time spent on these mundane or low value things so you can shift your work and your effort to the high value things. We all know that the 1102 field is both a tough one to hire for and a tough one to keep people as they’re definitely overworked, especially in that fourth quarter. So anything we can do to get them more time to focus on that high value work. That’s what we’re looking to do. And I think all the agencies are hungry for that.”