HHS Buyers Club opens door to innovative approaches to IT projects

The Department of Health and Human Services isn't following in the footsteps of the Oscar winning movie, Dallas Buyers Club. Rather, HHS is trying to help contr...

The Department of Health and Human Services is taking on the simple premise of “there’s got to be a better way” when it comes to technology projects.

It’s not just because of the sour taste HealthCare.gov left in their collective mouths. But with the long-history of failed IT programs, there’s a growing trend across government to inject innovation into the government.

HHS’ Buyers Club is the latest example in this movement. The agency soft-launched the effort June 24 with a simple blog post and plans to grow the site in preparation for a hard launch in early 2015.

Bryan Sivak, the HHS chief technology officer, said the goal of the Buyers Club is to give contracting officers and other acquisition employees examples and the confidence to take calculated and small risks to bring innovation to how they buy and manage technology.

Sivak said the goal of the Buyers Club is two-fold. The first is to bring new vendors into the marketplace.

The second is to open the door a bit wider to innovation for contracting officers.

“Underneath the Federal Acquisition Regulations, there are all of these legitimate and interesting ways of actually procuring things. We are focusing mainly on technology procurements, because that’s sort of one of the straight forward ways to think about,” Sivak said. “But the problem is that both program managers who are responsible for the programs and for setting up the requirements for buying the technology, and procurement officers are not really familiar with the series of steps that you’d have to go through to run one of these innovative procurements. So what we are trying to do is make it as easy as possible for somebody to digest that information and then utilize this knowledge to actually run one of these procurements.”

Tools, guides and more

Through the Buyers Club, HHS will develop playbooks, checklists and other guides to help contracting officers better understand what they can and can’t do under the FAR, as well as give them real-life examples of innovative procurements to essentially highlight potential approaches.

Sivak said there are plenty of examples of innovation in the federal arena, but they are not well known.

“I actually came across some really interesting work that has been done that detailed some of these ways of doing interesting and innovative procurements underneath the FAR. If these things have been detailed and documented, and there are case studies that exist for each one, why wouldn’t we try to figure out how to spread them far and wide,” he said. “It’s an experiment. We will see if it works. But if we can prove with a few examples that this idea has potential and we get better results with less money being spent in a shorter period of time, then everyone wins. I have high hopes, but, again, it’s not a guarantee. We will try and see what happens.”

The Buyers Club is one of several “innovation labs” or “innovation hubs” popping up across government.

The General Services Administration earlier this year launched 18F, which is an idea lab focused on short-term projects to improve federal services with an eye toward proving the art of the possible and delivering value quickly at a low cost.

At the same time, the Office of Management and Budget has asked for funding for fiscal 2015 to create a digital services A-Team. OMB would recruit about 25 technology professionals from outside the government to parachute into agencies on two- to four-year rotations to help get new IT projects off the ground and help get wayward programs back on track.

Additionally, the White House is close to launching round three of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. The first two rounds of this program provided the first spark of this growing movement across government.

Mike Pozmantier, the Homeland Security Department’s Science and Technology directorate’s transition to practice program manager in the cybersecurity division, said the move toward innovation is no longer just in the purview of offices similar to his.

“People seem to be a little bit more open to doing things differently. They’ve started to recognize the idea they are continually failing by doing the same thing,” he said. “In the last few months, I’ve been finding more and more people that are getting on board with this kind of stuff. To me, it’s encouraging on the direction of where the government may be heading if we can continue to progress.”

Testing the idea out slowly

The Buyers Club is looking at 2015 to really impact the agency’s buying and managing of IT.

A HHS official wanted to start blogging on different topics and getting early adopters interested. At the same time, the official recognized that contracting officers, program managers and other acquisition folks just entered their busy season with the federal fourth quarter starting July 1, so they likely wouldn’t have a lot of time for innovation.

Sivak said he hopes to have the first draft of the playbook done this summer and even run a procurement or two through it this year.

“We’re out actively soliciting projects from across HHS now,” he said. “What’s been very interesting to me is as a few of the early adopters within the agency have learned about this, they are lining up at our door. What they recognized is the old way of doing things actually results in a lot of stuff that doesn’t work very well. So, what’s cool is people really want to do things that work better. So if we can give them the opportunity to try something and take some of the other risk on ourselves of it not working, then it gives them an opportunity to experiment with something that may actually result in not just a better outcome, but a process other people can follow.”

Sivak said he recognizes the risk adverse culture across the government is one of the Buyers Club’s biggest obstacles. Contracting officers, as a whole, tend to be more cautious in the face of growing oversight by agency inspectors general, Congress and other auditors.

But Sivak said the issue of taking risks is something his office can help with.

“I frequently describe my role as a risk aggregator,” he said. “I have in the past literally sent emails that say things like, ‘Dear John, I order you to do XYZ. Sincerely, Bryan.’ Just in case something goes wrong, they can pull out that email and say, ‘Bryan told me to do it.’ These are not crazy risks. Theoretically, these are intelligent risks to take that we believe, if executed in the right way, will result in a better outcome. I’m willing to put my name on something like that.”

Part of taking intelligent risks, Sivak said, is to keep projects small and improve them as they go along. He said the Buyers Club is trying to truly implement that agile approach to IT.

Mark Naggar is leading the Buyers Club effort. Sivak said he’s on detail from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Naggar is the perfect person for the job since he has a contracting background, knows the FAR and understands how programs work, Sivak said.


Inside the Reporter’s Notebook: GSA takes 18F on a magical mystery tour

OMB aims to keep launch of digital A- Team on track

Data innovation, crowdsourcing on the horizon for Innovation Fellows program

VanRoekel offers silver lining in HealthCare.gov debacle

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