GSA’s agile RFI beginning of ‘systemic change’ in IT acquisition

The General Services Administration is setting the table for a systemic change to IT projects.

GSA’s 18F and Integrated Technology Services have issued a request for information that would initiate a sea change to how the government contracts with vendors and buys technology.

“This is a great approach. It’s long overdue, simply because they are not looking for agile vendors, but they are looking for systemic agility,” said Raj Ananthanpillai, the CEO of InfoZen, which provides agile and dev/ops services to agencies, including NASA and the Homeland Security Department’s Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“Everything they do has to become agile. Look at the way they are trying to procure vendors. There is a short window of opportunity to respond, quickly get some vendors to bid and then pick the vendors you want to do business with, and then have them deliver something quick and make sure the ball keeps moving,” he said. “This is important because this is how agile development has always been done historically. They are even taking it one step further because their procurement process is agile now.”

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The RFI is a precursor to a blanket purchase agreement that Schedule 70 vendors will be able to bid on. The BPA initially will be for GSA use only, but 18F and ITS say every agency eventually will be able to place orders against it. GSA says it would like to go from solicitation to contract kick-off in four weeks. Then in six to eight months, it would add more vendors and expand the BPA to the rest of the government.

GSA launched 18F in March as a way to bring outside technology experts into government to solve problems. Since then, 18F has grown quickly to more than 100 employees. It launched a consulting service in late 2014.

Nick Sinai, the former U.S. deputy chief technology officer and now Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, said in an email to Federal News Radio that the RFI is a big deal and a promising sign because it’s exactly what GSA should be doing.

“They are hitting on some of my favorite themes: show, don’t tell; iterate often and make it transparent,” he said.

Demonstrate agile skills

GSA says it plans to ask vendors who are bidding on the future BPA to provide a live or near-live demonstration of their capabilities, such as a 24-hour product development challenge.

“Doing it this way will not only help yield high-quality vendors, but also reduce how much ‘bid and proposal’ expense companies have to incur. Very little, if any, in the way of written responses will be required, as is typically the case,” GSA’s Chris Cairns and Greg Godbout wrote in a blog post.

Ananthanpillai said the approach GSA is taking with the RFI and potentially the BPA is becoming more common in both government and industry. He said NASA, CIS, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Patent and Trademark Office and the Defense Information Systems Agency are taking similar approaches to implementing agile development processes.

The Office of Management and Budget reported in January that agencies using agile development are delivering capabilities 20 days faster than those using the previous approach, commonly known as “waterfall.”

“You need a little bit of organizational shifting,” Ananthanpillai said. “In my opinion, there are three buckets of people in the federal government. If you tell them the concept of agile, they will say, ‘No way.’ Another one will say, ‘There is a chance this will work.’ And the third would be, ‘Let’s get started.’ So you have two-thirds of them in your camp, so you have to get as many as you can to get to the 80 percent rule. Eighty percent of the organization is behind this and you can start delivering things.”

He said InfoZen plans to look closely at the RFI.

GSA says it wants to measure success through “simple and transparent contractor performance metrics.” These may include following which agencies are structuring acquisitions in short durations, which GSA says will give it insight into which agency and vendor are delivering value.

“Those who are will earn greater opportunities to win more work,” GSA said. “Those who aren’t will be periodically off-ramped and competitively replaced with new marketplace entrants.”

Onramps for new vendors

The strategy also will give new entrants into the federal market the opportunity to get on the contract.

“To companies looking to enter or establish their presence in the federal marketplace, it appears mysterious and difficult to comprehend. Unfortunately, this has deterred many great companies from trying to do business with the federal government,” GSA said. “To encourage as many companies as possible from within and outside of the federal marketplace to compete for a BPA award, we’re partnering with IT Schedule 70’s vendor outreach program to educate these companies on how federal contracting works and to train them on completing the prerequisite process to become an IT Schedule 70 contract vendor.”

Sinai said GSA’s approach is good for agencies and vendors alike.

“The agencies shouldn’t need convincing — this will help level the playing field between experienced contractors and new entrants, and ensure better digital services for the American people,” Sinai said. “It will be a pretty big change for traditional government contractors, but smart ones will welcome this kind of change — as it will help them deliver customer value sooner, and help them up their game as they compete against new entrants.”

GSA plans on holding an industry day Jan. 27 in Washington.

“They are making some bold moves. I sincerely hope that this succeeds because this is the right approach,” Ananthanpillai said. “This is the kind of thing you start off in software development and then you slowly infiltrate this agile approach to other back-office IT projects. They want to get something done and they can’t wait for a year to see if it will work. This is quick, results oriented. I think this also will give the flexibility to the government to structure their contracts.”

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