While the COVID-19 pandemic showed the federal acquisition bureaucracy is capable of moving quickly when it truly has to, leaders in the community say it’s had at least one long-term effect: Now that the federal customers who rely on the system see speed as the new normal, they won’t be satisfied with a return to the status quo ante.
To be sure, many of 2020’s accelerated procurements were helped by special authorities implemented by Congress and federal regulators, along with emergency procedures like widespread undefinitized contract actions. But although some of the measures were only temporary, there’s now an expectation that federal acquirers will make some of the process improvements and technology tools they adopted during COVID a permanent part of the way they do business.
“We have a lot of young people, they’re comfortable with this, and they’re going to continue to want to move and use these tools to procure these things,” Andrew Jernell, the Food and Drug Administration’s director of information technology acquisitions said during a panel moderated by Federal News Network’s Jason Miller and hosted by AFCEA Bethesda. “There’s now a new level of expectation. It’s like, ‘Well, you guys did an acquisition in a month during the pandemic, and now you’re gonna tell me it takes nine months?’ That’s just not going to fly as we move forward.”
Among the changes FDA made during the pandemic is greater use of enterprise-wide contracts to support its various centers.
“We are trying to do a little bit more consolidation. Instead of buying the same thing 10 times, we have one contract that streamlines the effort. And we continue to go down this road of best-in-class and category management,” Jernell said. “In the IT arena, we rely heavily on our [General Services Administration contracts], the [NIH Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment Center] contract and NASA [Solution for Enterprise-Wide Procurement].”
At the Defense Department, acquisition officials were tasked early in the pandemic with assisting the Department of Health and Human Services with emergency procurements of medical supplies and personal protective equipment. But without deep knowledge of the medical device industry, officials realized they needed new ways to quickly determine which firms could actually fulfill orders and which could not.
For that, they turned to commercially-available supply chain illumination tools. They proved valuable enough that DoD set up an enterprise-wide contract so that it could keep using them on an ongoing basis, said Stacy Bostjanick, DoD’s acting director for supply chain risk management.
“Everything that these tools use are open source data, and they’re able to correlate it to give us a risk rating to help us assess where we can go with it. It’s a new, burgeoning field that is just on the horizon, and it provided us a lot of good capability during the pandemic,” she said. “We were able to make sure that we had products on the ground faster than ever, because we were able to identify the right offeror. I think that was probably the coolest thing that happened during the pandemic that the department employed.”
And while much has been made of the government’s ability to pivot its workforce to a nearly-all telework environment during the pandemic, agencies learned that online collaboration tools also happen to be an effective way to interact with industry.
“We’ve utilized product demos virtually, and quite frankly, we could have done that pre-pandemic. I just don’t think we were as comfortable with the tools as we are now,” said Chuck Ross, a director in the Department of Veterans Affairs Technology Acquisition Center. “We’ve had vendors that traditionally had come into the office and provide in-person demonstrations of their technologies just do it remotely, and it’s worked out great. And I think as a result we’ve utilized that more and more in our evaluation procedures.”
And reducing the level of difficulty involved in interactions between companies and government purchasers had beneficial effects that agencies want to carry forward. For example, at the General Services Administration, small businesses increased their presence on GSA’s Schedules during Fiscal 2020 to 33.2% of sales, for a total of $6 billion, said Roya Konzman, the agency’s acting director for solutions development for IT services.
“We learned so much during this time — we’ve learned to be attentive and flexible in our acquisition processes and deliveries and to allow innovation and collaboration, not only with our customer agencies, but with our industry partners. It’s allowed us to address challenges early and always be on the lookout for opportunities,” she said. “We love some of the changes that we have made, and I think we will continue in that path just because of some great successes that have come out of it.”