Federal agencies have straightforward goals when undertaking acquisitions: conduct a fair, clearly defined source selection; award contracts in a timely manner; maintain security; protect vendor’s sensitive information; avoid protests; and manage the contracts efficiently once they’re awarded.
That process, of course, has never been as simple as it might look from a distance, and these days it is getting increasingly complex and difficult as agencies’ portfolios grow. It’s been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuing shutdowns, an eventual return to a hybrid workplace with both remote and on-site collaborations, and growing concerns over security and document sharing.
The growth in contract values and the size of agency portfolios, especially with their move into the cloud, is only going to continue down the digital path. It’s time for a more comprehensive, automated approach.
Traditional Methods Can’t Keep Up
Source Selections are too often conducted through email and spreadsheets, which can complicate the process of tracking and managing all documentation while ensuring compliance with federal regulations and conducting secure, fair deliberations. Additionally, they always operate under the shadow of a potential protest, which can add anywhere from 90 days to over a year onto what already is a time-consuming, arduous process.
Once contracts are awarded, managing an increasingly complex portfolio presents its own challenges, such as tracking hundreds of deliverables and a regular stream of modifications within strict time limits. Deliverables that aren’t reviewed in a set amount of time must be accepted, even if they’re unsatisfactory. Delays in processing modifications can increase contract costs and slow technical refresh, if not addressed promptly.
It has become a daunting job for overworked agency procurement teams that may not have all the necessary skills in-house. Automating the acquisition lifecycle, with features to track documentation, secure communications and maintain command of compliance requirements, will deliver benefits of streamlining the evaluation process, controlling costs and providing built-in protections against protests.
Choosing the Right Tools to Get Acquisitions Under Control
The full lifecycle management of acquisitions requires tools and techniques built to handle the many facets of acquisition, with a flexible platform that can be tailored to each agency’s unique needs. The following features are worth considering as agencies make that choice:
Automation—to a Point
Automation reduces the manual burdens typically assigned to the acquisition teams, creating more seamless, controlled processes. Automated scheduling and workflows, for example, can ensure the source selection plan is followed, and post award reviews of deliverables are managed on time. They can do the same for modifications, ensuring timely reviews, shorter award times and checking for errors in submissions. Most evaluations still require human judgement; therefore, automation should focus on speeding up the process to augment that human expertise.
Secure, structured portals for both vendor and government teams greatly increase the quality of proposals, collaboration and efficiency. A vendor portal, for instance, allows vendors to make secure submissions while enabling government evaluators to take action quickly. A two-way interface enables secure vendor communications on specific contract actions, while focusing discussion to only those issues. A technical data repository provides a place where large volumes of data can be stored, organized and shared with appropriate stakeholders. Vendors can review draft documentation and provide feedback, thereby, increasing collaboration. Requiring that vendors register to receive this data also can provide insight to the government about potential bidders.
Secure access controls are critical to providing privacy and security, particularly in light of FISMA and FedRAMP standards. Agencies need to protect vendor submissions, which include proprietary technology and pricing models, ensuring that vendors can’t compare and contrast their proposals.
A solution that guides bidders through solicitations can streamline the process for everyone, and especially help small and mid-size vendors who might not have the wherewithal to align with the compliance process. It also benefits agencies by opening the process to more bidders, particularly if the agency has a small-business set-aside provision. Vendor proposal submission portals replace excel based bid-models with a centralized browser base-model that includes price table inspection rules for vendors to ensure they are complete and compliant with the pricing requirements.
Prices in the Open
A pricing marketplace, in a multi-award environment, provides agency stakeholders the ability to compare vendors prices CLIN by CLIN, perform market research, validate quotes, perform budget forecasts, and implement invoice verification. Additionally, the marketplace creates a continuous competitive environment, as it provides transparency, incentivizing vendors to lower prices in near-real time as they compete for agency business.
Many source selection evaluation teams are comprised of team members with various amounts of experience. Ensuring that the evaluators are following the stipulated process and that the scoring and justifications are tied to the evaluation criteria is key in the defense of potential protests. The solution should facilitate the workflow lifecycle and guide the team, from the start, in reviewing proposals, documenting strengths, weaknesses, and risks, recording individual ratings, and finally, providing a simple to follow consensus process, all within a secure collaborative evaluation environment.
Preparing for Protests
No matter how big a procurement is or how complex an agency’s portfolio has become, it’s essential to be able to anticipate protests and be prepared. A solution well-versed in federal regulations such as FAR and DFAR can provide one level of protection. Making sure that deliberations—whether on-site or in a hybrid setting—are secure can maintain the integrity of the process and provide another defense against protests. Additionally, structured document tools help agencies respond quickly in the event of a protest, or even preempt them by giving agencies the means to debrief losing bidders.
Rather than being overwhelmed by the growing complexity of acquisitions, agencies employing lifecycle acquisitions management can streamline their operations, adding speed in making awards, while holding down costs, meeting security and compliance requirements, and avoiding protests. Not only does this approach encourage efficiency, both agencies and vendors ensure they are aligned throughout the process, reaching the same goal. With the resources available, we should rethink the traditional methods and look towards a comprehensive, transparent and automated approach.
Bill Morris is business operations manager at Noblis RunAcquisitions