Insight by Coupa

Four trends driving innovation in federal procurement

NASA is joining the likes of the departments of Defense and Homeland Security in pursuing innovation in an unusual space: acquisition. It recently stood up the ...

NASA is joining the likes of the departments of Defense and Homeland Security in pursuing innovation in an unusual space: acquisition. It recently stood up the NASA Acquisition Innovation Launchpad (NAIL), modeling it after DHS’ Procurement Innovation Lab (PIL). The goal is to create a safe place for mission and acquisition experts to experiment with ways to reduce cycle time and ways to be more cost effective. Andy Malay, VP of Public Sector at Coupa Software, said achieving that goal will benefit everyone in the federal contracting ecosystem, not just NASA itself.

“[Karla Smith Jackson, the assistant administrator for procurement and the senior procurement executive at NASA] is a little ahead of the curve in terms of actually creating an organization that focuses on that,” Malay said. “The fact that things are moving more towards that commercial model of getting industry involved, I think helps everybody out because it’ll speed up the procurement cycle and then the overall costs for both the government and for the industry goes down, which ultimately would lead to lower prices across the board.”

Watch for more insights on this topic during a special edition of Ask the CIO: Nasa Procurement Innovation.

Malay said he hopes the ultimate result of offices like NAIL and PIL is eliminating parts of the solicitation process, streamlining it and reducing reliance on requests for proposal (RFPs). He said he would like to see the request for information (RFI) process narrow down the competition. He also said oral presentations would be superior to RFPs, because you can fit more information into a meeting, and immediately clarify any ambiguous language.

And Malay said NASA’s move follows some larger trends in public sector procurement that he’s been seeing lately. First, agencies have a need for operational improvements and efficiencies, largely due to their reliance on older technologies.

“I did a presentation one time to quite large a roomful of people, and I asked people in the audience to raise your hand if you’ve used Amazon and every hand shot up,” he said.” And then I said, How many people were trained to use Amazon? Not a single hand went up. We need that type of environment in the federal marketplace where systems are easy, intuitive and that Amazon like experience so that the procurement process can be simplified.”

The second thing agencies are looking for is visibility across the entire spectrum of spend. The problem, Malay said, is the way agencies are leveraging the data they collect on this. Their data analysis is largely backward facing; it’s happening months down the road, fueling only after-the-fact reviews. But the data could be leveraged earlier on in the process, assuming the agency has the required visibility, in order to drive better decision making in the moment.

The third thing agencies want is security, Malay said. Cloud technologies introduce new security tools, but they also bring new security vulnerabilities. Agencies are constantly worried about winding up in headlines as the victim of the next big system breach.

Finally, there’s risk: The pandemic provided an abject lesson in the fragility of the supply chain. Suppliers can go out of business, leaving agencies scrambling for new options for products or services. Agencies are looking for systems, Malay said, that can help them identify, mitigate and react to that risk.

“What we are articulating to our prospects and customers is really the need to have that availability to plan appropriately. You don’t know when the next catastrophe is going to happen, the next pandemic, the next natural disaster,” he said. “You need to be prepared for that, because all those things can impact the supply chain. So what we’re seeing is that organizations create what we call a digital representation of their supply chain, and that includes the supplier network. And then they’re able to do what if scenarios.”

One way agencies can respond to that risk is by diversifying their supply chains. Assuming shipping is occurring normally – and that’s a big assumption in a catastrophic scenario, as the pandemic proved – international suppliers are increasingly a viable option. But smaller providers, especially in niche services, are also worth cultivating, Malay said.

Socioeconomically disadvantaged small businesses are a major focus in federal procurement right now, with the Biden administration setting ever higher goals for agencies’ small business spend. Broadening the spectrum of who agencies are buying from is worthwhile, Malay said, because it lowers prices and improves competition on the grand scale.

More competition and a more diverse contracting base also leads to more innovation, which is something every agency is currently chasing after.

“The concept that I think everybody is migrating to is let’s get a piece of software that evolves over time so that we don’t have to constantly renew, upgrade, replace,” Malay said.

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