IRS, Army using automation to cut hours out of the acquisition process

The use of robotics process automation, natural language processing and other emerging technologies are gaining momentum in the federal acquisition community to...

Just about a year ago, Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator Dr. Michael Wooten unveiled what likely will be his signature priority—removing friction from the acquisition process.

While many in industry privately mock and question what that concept or phrase really means, it’s clear that frictionless acquisition will lean heavily on robotics process automation (RPA) and other initiatives to lessen the burden on contracting officers.

That became abundantly clear during the ACT-IAC Acquisition Excellence conference last week.

Not only did Wooten continue to message this now governmentwide goal, he also offered some real life examples of what the future could look like.

One of those efforts focuses on reducing procurement administrative lead time (PALT).

“We look to accelerate the use of facilitated requirements development workshops, known as SAWS,” Wooten said. “We should enhance the requirements development process with the same technologies used to finish my sentences when I send texts or emails. This is no pie-in-the-sky vision. The technology exists today. In fact, the Department of Interior is piloting this approach. Under one of its contracts, a contractor supporting the Department of Interior applies natural language processing and machine learning tools to coach Interior’s acquisition community through the acquisition process. These artificial intelligence tools collect data to identify training needs. These data support management decisions to support better performance through training or process improvements.”

Step back for a second and think about this, as a program manager is writing a requirement to buy help desk services or facilities engineering services or even something more complex like the design of the next fighter jet, and the AI and natural language processing tool brings in the clauses and requirements deemed most relevant based on scanning hundreds or thousands of previous contracts. Then the program manager just has to decide or make hopefully minor adjustments to the language.

Wooten said this is about reducing lead time to get from needing something to having something by creating collaborative, cross-functional teams to anticipate customer needs more proactively.

He said agencies are testing out SAWs that bring together cross-functional teams.

Of course, SAWs are not a new concept. It’s something the General Services Administration used in 2015 to create the blanket purchase agreement for identity management services after the Office of Personnel Management data breach. The Defense Department also has used SAWs since 2012 for all service acquisition worth more than $1 billion.

Not sure why OFPP believes piloting these concepts still is necessary as it’s clear they work and “remove friction.”

RPA pilots abound

Automation is another concept gaining a lot of attention in the acquisition community. Several agencies from the IRS to the Army to GSA have applied RPA to the procurement process.

Wooten said automation will change the way contracting officers will work.

“Process automation tools can improve compliance. We should look forward to a time when process automation tools take on the routine processes. These process automation tools can on the ‘flow-chartable’ tasks. These tools will execute program decisions,” he said. “In this fashion, automation can enable a compliance system that enables greater speed and accuracy. As process automation tools take on program decisions, they free people to make non-program decisions. They free people to exercise critical thinking and professional judgement. They empower people to create solutions.”

The IRS and the Army are testing out the exact concepts Wooten is referring to.

Mitchell Winans, the IRS senior advisor for enterprise digitalization, said the tax agency has two programs under the Pilot IRS initiative.

Mitchell Winans is the IRS senior advisor for enterprise digitalization.

One tool is a contract clause review.

“It’s a tool where you can upload a procurement document of any kind, answer seven easy questions about that document and the tool provides a compliance report in seconds. The tool is able to identify text that is missing or misapplied, maybe it’s out of date, maybe it’s incomplete so it’s checking the Federal Acquisition Regulations, the Treasury acquisition regulations, IRS acquisition policies and things like that,” Winans said at the Acquisition Excellence event. “That tool already has been able to identify and correct over 10,000 errors for our procurement operations. It has a huge return on investment, huge time and cost saver for our acquisition employees.”

The second tool the IRS is testing focuses on contractor responsibility determination, which automatically verifies a company is eligible to do business with the government before awarding a contract.

He said it’s a highly manual and time consuming process.

“We built a bot where the acquisition employee can just email the DUNS number for the company that they want to check to the bot and the bot automatically searches public databases, downloads some documents, captures some screenshots and auto populates a responsibility determination Word document, and then sends everything back to the procurement employee in a streamlined report in roughly five minutes. This is a process that normally would take an employee, depending on their workload and the complexity of whats happening, two to three hours and have to complete it manually by hand. We think it saves us approximately 2.5 hours per responsibility determination and over 11,000 hours per year.”

DORA the bot, not the explorer

The Army also launched a bot, called DORA—determination of responsibility assistant—to do contractor responsibility determinations based on the IRS pilot.

Liz Chirico, the acquisition innovation lead in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for procurement, said the bot isn’t taking away the contracting officer’s responsibility to make the eligibility determination. It’s giving them the information pulled from and and putting a summary of that information into an already formatted template.

“We divided our bot into two different areas. The first one is under the simplified acquisition threshold (SAT) so when acquisition officials query that version of the bot, they will receive more streamlined policy output that is just one form,” she said. “Then the over SAT bot, which is a much more detailed policy output form and is about three pages long. It goes into more details. The bot is not able to fill out all the areas on the form because we do not have non-personnel common access card credentials yet, but we are looking into that for the future.”

Chirico said it saves a tremendous amount of time, from hours to minutes.

Liz Chirico is the acquisition innovation lead in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for procurement.

She said the Army tested the bot out with 1,000 contract specialists last year. It concluded before January and within a few weeks the Army decided to make it permanent.

“We plan to extend to the Air Force and Navy in fiscal 2021. We signed a memorandum of agreement with them,” Chirico said. “Our team is looking into a couple of other interesting intelligent automation ideas. We are looking at automating some of the manual look up processes for pricing so going to some of the public facing pricing sites like GSA’s CALC and the Bureau of Labor and Statistics are two examples. We also are looking into streamlining the acquisition requirements process. That process often takes a lot of time and requires duplicative information, so if there is any way for us to streamline that and have all of the requirements stated up front and have those templates and forms pre-populated.”

She said the Army also is looking for a bot to do Section 889—prohibition of Chinese made telecommunications products—look up once it goes into

Phase 3 of automation

Marc Mancher, a principal with Deloitte Consulting and who leads the call center and automation business, said these and other examples across the government shows using RPA or intelligent automation has few significant barriers to entry and gives a huge ROI.

He said the public sector is entering wave 3 of RPA, which he said means widespread adoption in the business areas.

“Agencies are realizing they need RPA associated with business areas because it came make it better or faster,” Mancher said. “That is why we see this playing out where RPA is becoming more mainline and becoming part of everything else.”

He said when agencies buy tools like document processing software or a chatbot, they are requesting RPA as part of the system.

“I think the fear of RPA or bots taking your job is down. I think the hype is down too, but software approvals are up,” Mancher said. “I don’t think RPA has hit its peak yet. The number of bots will continue to grow for a couple of reasons. If you look at bots alone, if you can take 30 seconds out of average handle time of a document, that can drastically reduce your spending and improve your customer service. There are so many examples not touched yet in that space.”

And this brings us back around to the frictionless acquisition. Some may scoff at the words or concepts, but the Army and the IRS are proving that through automation tools, federal procurement can move more quickly without losing any rigor. If there is one things the COVID-19 pandemic has showed agencies, speed and thoroughness do not have to be opposing factors in procurement.

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