New platform tries to bring some normalcy to the agile craze

New data shows agencies bought $120 million more worth of agile services in 2016 than in 2015 as part of the growing demand for these capabilities.

Nine months after we asked in this space if the agile craze is taking the government by storm, the data and actions continue to show a lack of coordinated contracting approach leading to a bunch of one-off contracts.

Over at the Homeland Security Department is the most obvious example of this growing challenge.

In late April, the Transportation Security Administration awarded Accenture a $64 million contract for the EAGLE II multiple award contract vehicle  to transform more than 70 applications into a modern architecture.

About a month later, DHS’s procurement office bailed on setting up its $1.5 billion small-business contract vehicle for agile services after two rounds of awards and two rounds of protests. DHS told the Government Accountability Office it didn’t have the expertise to fix the procurement and would develop a new acquisition approach in 2018.

The same agency is trying to implement agile with separate approaches, leading to duplication of resources and potentially putting vendors through the long and costly procurement process multiple times.

Let’s dig deeper into what’s going on across the government.

New data from Bloomberg Government shows spending on agile services increased to $368 million in fiscal 2016 from $242 million in 2015 among the 40 biggest contract vehicles.

Agile Spending on the Rise
Bloomberg Government looked across 40 multiple award contracts at the end of April for any reference to agile contracting. Below are results from five of the largest contracts that referenced agile spending.
contract 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 (YTD)
Alliant Small Business $10.2M $9.1M $27.8M $61.7M $125.7M $7.2M
GSA Schedule 70 $63k $4.1M $11.6M $44.5M $21.4M $960k
NIH CIO-SP3 small business $0 $0 $7.9M $27.8M $36.4M $-4.1M*
DISA ENCORE II $1.6M $12.2M $15.1M $14M None reported $2.1M
VA T4 $0 $0 $12.1M $17.1M $18.1M $4.9M
Total spending (40 contracts) $22.7M $36.7M $125.8M $242.6M $368.1M $50.6M
Six Year total $846.6M

* Bloomberg Government says NIH CIO-SP3 has a negative amount because there have been more de-obligations than obligations so far in 2017.

The problem here is agencies are using both governmentwide acquisition contracts (GWACs) like Alliant Small Business from the General Services Administration, buying from GSA’s IT schedule or depending on agency-specific multiple award contracts like the T4 vehicle at the Veterans Affairs Department.

There are probably many reasons why agencies are using such a variety of contracts, most notably the lack of a governmentwide vehicle for agile services—GSA’s 18F in 2015 discussed taking the lessons learned from its agile blanket purchase agreement and developing a governmentwide contract.

Another reason for this one-off approach to agile is every agency still is figuring out what agile means for them and how to incorporate it into their acquisition processes.

For this challenge, help is now available.

The MITRE Corp. developed a free online platform called Acquisition in the Digital Age (AiDA) to provide tools, references and best practices for agencies to use agile methodologies.

Peter Modigliani, the division chief acquisition strategist for MITRE’s Center for Acquisition and Management Sciences, said AiDA is trying to address three major challenges:

  • The federal acquisition environment is complex and the processes aren’t always digital friendly.
  • The workforce needs help. About half of the acquisition workforce can retire in the next 10 years, and by some estimates up to 50 percent have less than five years of experience. Modigliani said the key with acquisition is to have experience to effectively do acquistion.
  • There was no organized knowledge bank with policy guides, reports, memos, statues updated from Congress and anything else that is important to know. Modigliani said there is a wealth of information that overwhelms the average acquisition professional. He said there isn’t a good place that is curated where they can find what they need quickly and easily.

“All of these challenges led us to develop AiDA,” Modigliani said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “The prototype is to show the art of the possible from both a practioner and executive standpoint. We also have an initial suite of capabilities that the workforce can use today. When we say digital, we are talking about different areas then say GSA’s 18F and the U.S. Digital Service. Our core content is how to acquire capabilities leveraging agile practices as well leveraging tools online in a collaborative environment.”

Modigliani and Su Chang, the associate department head in MITRE’s Center for Transforming Health, took a guide they developed for the Defense Department in 2014 and expanded it.

“The trend across government is they continue to adopt agile,” Chang said. “There was recognition that this was picking up steam, but there was no real authoritative guidance for how to do agile in the government context. While commercial agile practices have been used widely and successful, you can’t apply it one-for-one in the government space. What we found was even though we have this acquisition background and understand agile, we saw there was a gap.”

MITRE created separate information resources on the platform for everyone from program managers to systems engineers to contracting officers to cost estimators.

It also separated the resources across the three broad acquisition phases of agile, such as market research or understanding the technology and risk phase.

“For each phase, we filtered down for each activity you have to do, and included how-to guidance for each activity,” Modigliani said. “We included sample contract language, a wealth of references, including embedded YouTube videos for just-in-time training. We try to ask and answer key questions that you’d expect an acquisition executive to ask. If you can address these key elements, then you probably have good confidence to advance through next review and into the next phase. We really want to drive critical thinking about acquisition planning.”

At the same time, managers need to think differently about digital or agile acquisitions. So within AiDA, MITRE brings together guidance, best practices and other help to create what they hope is a single, trustworthy source of information.

Chang said the most innovative part of AiDA is the tailored approach to agile acquisition.

MITRE says the tailored acquisition models provide targeted, useful guidance on how to acquire a specific type of product or service. The model provides the key information and process steps needed under each acquisition phase to best execute an acquisition for agile IT development.

“This proactively tailored model is designed to offer a solid starting point for programs; it is not intended to be a standard solution for all agile IT development programs,” MITRE stated on its site. “This guidance should be used as a reference point in designing acquisition strategies for agile IT development acquisitions.”

Chang said the goal was not to write another text book or generic training model.

“The best part of the site is it allows you to demonstrate the art of the possible is,” Chang said. “We are trying to disrupt the way the community is approaching acquisition. We know Defense Acquisition University training is helpful, but it’s generally generic. We want to change the acquisition environment so we are thinking about the tailoring model where we can help agencies design their own acquisition model based on common types of products and services they acquire.”

Modigliani said MITRE is reaching out the acquisition professionals to help spread the word about the platform, and plans to contact the Chief Acquisition Officer’s Council and certain members of Congress.

“Our goal is to get the acquisition workforce to embrace more digital strategies and tools, to rethink their core processes of the program office and how they operate, conduct oversight, issue policies and guidance and how they manage portfolios,” he said. “The more they can understand there are digital tools out there to help manage the complexity of the acquisition system more effectively.”

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