Contracting officers benefit from a bot in the seat to their right

The Office Of Management and Budget and General Services Administration have been fielding a data integration tool to help contracting officers.

The Office Of Management and Budget and General Services Administration have been fielding a data integration tool to help contracting officers. Dubbed Co-Pilot, it gathers data from various governmentwide procurement systems, and presents buyers with pricing histories, vendor information and other data to help their decisions. How’s the first month been going? The Federal Drive with Tom Temin gets an update from the senior advisor at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, Christine Harada.

Interview Transcript:  

Tom Temin  And it’s been running almost a month now. And how has the take up have been so far for Co-Pilot?

Christine Harada  The take up in pretty good thus far. We had rolled it out a couple of weeks ago, as you indicated, and we have received a lot actually very positive feedback from contracting officers and acquisition professionals across the federal government. We’ve heard feedback and comments to the effect of words has been. And I think that it has been an extraordinarily useful tool. And I’d like to think that we also released it in a very good time from a seasonal perspective, if you will, as you know, a lot of federal government contracting does indeed happen in the last quarter of the fiscal year.

Tom Temin  And did you beta test it with a few poor souls ahead of time? Or did it simply launch? And if so, how many people have used it?

Christine Harada  We did beta test it with a few brave souls. And they of course, it provided us with some great user feedback around that. Since launch, we’ve had over 2500 unique users. And we’ve had approximately 1800 users who are using it on a regular basis.

Tom Temin  Wow. And briefly walk us through how it actually works. In daily situation. Say I’m a CO, I want to know what’s the best pricing or what are the pricing trends for product XYZ? What do I do? Do I have a window that I type XYZ into? Or what do they see?

Christine Harada  Yes, absolutely. So, it is just as you say, it’s a great tool, and it’s tailored specifically for the contracting officer and Acquisition Professional user base, if you will. It is available to any government user. And it brings together several key facets of both the contracting officer and Program Manager user journey. Everything from cost estimates to vendor research to quickly identifying government or agency wide contract vehicle that can be used to meet requirements. It is currently available only for federal use, but it is basically available solely for those particular purposes. It’s the product of years of user research, the team saw a need to help COs really rapidly procure the goods and services needed for COVID response while still aligning right to overall good federal taxpayer stewardship as well as category management principles. And over time, the tool has evolved from a dashboard to a more integrated web application that supports a lot more robust pricing and contract research, as well as bolstering the workforce’s ability to be able to get these contracts and services executed.

Tom Temin  And are people using it able to sail to put a cliche on here think outside the box, as the government seeks the so called innovative companies and people that are not doing business with the government, but might have great products and services the government could use, does it see anything outside of what’s already in the procurement systems in the area of market research, or I think a lot of COs, you know, run into trouble sometimes.

Christine Harada  So, it does indeed, include a find a vendor feature. And it’s specifically targeted for those vendors that are registered in SAM. So, you do need to be registered in SAM in order to be searchable for this particular user base.

Tom Temin  Right. And the vehicles are all in there also.

Christine Harada  That is correct. So especially for those contracting officers that may not have much experience or exposure to other contracting vehicles outside of their agency. That is certainly unique benefit for these agencies. If the tool enables the contracting officer to match requirements to both contracting vehicles, whether it be like with other agencies and or other government wide vehicles.

Tom Temin  We’re speaking with Christine Harada. She’s senior adviser to the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. And can you narrow it down? Suppose I want to know how just civilian agencies did with this or just DoD agencies did with a certain product? Can you put parameters? Or is all of the government wide data? Always in every search?

Christine Harada  It’s set up so that we want to make sure that we’re maximizing the data exposure. And so, it’s based on what are the common spend categories across the entirety of the federal government. And at the moment, the displays do, do show everything. So, it’s not that, you know, once you download the data, etc., you can filter it out yourself, but we wanted to make sure that we were broadening the aperture of the data as much as we possibly could so that contracting officers can see what else is all out there.

Tom Temin  But people don’t have to download datasets then normally to use it?

Christine Harada  That’s correct.

Tom Temin  Yeah, because that’s a pain in the neck. You know, you get all these crazy spreadsheets and different formats and then what do you do so this does that for you. You might say.

Christine Harada  It might be my it’d be a pain in the butt, you know, it might be a pain for some people. But if you’re a data nerd, like me or many other contracting officers, you know, I think it’s, I find that personally fun, but that’s just me.

Tom Temin  Right? Well, will grant you that much fun as you want. Yeah, I feel like downloading data. And how did this get developed? Was it an in house, you know, US digital service type of effort? Or did you adapt a commercial product?

Christine Harada  So, this capability was developed very much based on our government user base, fundamentally built from scratch because of the very vast nature and the number of data systems that we’ve got across the entirety of the federal government.

Tom Temin  Was it built by a contractor? Or was it coded, you know, in house, just out of curiosity.

Christine Harada  it was built by a contractor, and also beta tested as a Tableau dashboard. Because we knew that we wanted to make sure that we’re able to convert it to a web app for performance needs.

Tom Temin  Sure. And the name Co-Pilot, I don’t know about you, but every time I get on a computer to do anything, Microsoft is telling me to use Co-Pilot something that it developed in the artificial intelligence area. But you had the name first.

Christine Harada  Yes. You know, we liked the name Co-Pilot because it ties to the Acquisition Gateway, and it implies that it’s a way to support navigating the overall complex, you know, acquisition process itself.

Tom Temin  All right, and what is your plan for it? I mean, this is not touted as an artificial intelligence product. But it sure seems ripe for AI.

Christine Harada  That’s something that we’re still candidly exploring, you know, we are looking to expand both the features and the scope of this tool, including the data within it at the moment, it enables the user to search for products. And we do envision enlarging the scope, if you will to include services on the radar, we’re also looking to apply emerging technologies, for example, for natural language pairings. So, making it a little bit user friendly in that regard.

Tom Temin  Got it. And it sounds like it’s automatically updated. Because say NASA soup or a new GSA G whack is coming into the market. And as launched, those agencies would put the data online as they need fit as they see fit. And therefore, it would in a sense automatically be available to Co-Pilot fair way to put it.

Christine Harada  Yes, that’s correct. It’s the data is refreshed on a weekly cadence as we receive that data from agencies and the contracts.

Tom Temin  And what have people told you they wish could be improved with it so far?

Christine Harada  We’re trying to get the acquisition professionals used to it, period and get it you know, enhancing the adoption across the entirety of the workforce. Two things. I think agency professionals are saying that they would like to see an increase in the scope of data specifically around services, which of course we’re working on. And they’re also interested explore AI capability itself with this with the Co-Pilot tool.

Tom Temin  Right? And that’s where you get into possible vendors that aren’t yet in federal contracts or in SAM because artificial intelligence companies are kind of like dandelions on my lawn.

Christine Harada  For our purposes, we’re sticking with Sam registrants. You know, we absolutely do need the vendors to be registered and SAM, you know, with respect to other unregistered, you know, potential vendors, if you will, there are other methods that we’re using. So, for example, you may be familiar with the Department of Defense’s trade winds marketplace, which is, you know, exposes newer vendors, potential vendors, to the Department of Defense market. So, we’ve got other mechanisms like that we are first and foremost, though, focused on ensuring that we’re best supporting our acquisition professionals with the existing vendors already that are indeed registered in SAM. There plenty of vendors in there, number one, but also plenty of vendors would also like to expand their offerings and services to the federal government. And so, we view this as a great way for them to be able to gain that visibility with those other agencies that they have not historically served up until this point.

Tom Temin  And one final question, what’s your plan to get more than just 2000 people? There’s probably, you know, 40,000 COs, 1102s just in DOD alone.

Christine Harada  Sure, of course, it’s actually 40,000 COs and contracting presses across the entirety of the government as well as 100,000 program managers. So, we are doing a number of things. Number one, we’re doing monthly demonstrations. Number two, we’re also holding office hours to try to walk folks through the tool itself. We have also convened the frontline forum. And those members of the frontline forum have been helping us with evangelizing, if you will, the capabilities of the tools. We’ve also been doing agency roadshows, as well as social media outreach via the acquisition gateways, we’ve also been engaging a lot of other groups and communities of practice. So, in addition to the frontline form that I mentioned, with external entities, like ACT, IACT, for example, and so we definitely view this as a marathon and not a sprint as we ensure that we’re steadily building out the user base. It is my view, I think our view that the benefits and the power of the tool is amazing, just with products itself, and so I do think that that natural enthusiasm will enable us to see a steady uptick not just in visitors who are curious about the tool itself but also a true adoption.

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