HHS Buyers Club proving a non-traditional IT acquisition approach works

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Buyers Club celebrated its one-year anniversary by releasing a major solicitation earlier this week.

The request for proposal marks a growing recognition that improving the federal acquisition process is possible.

Mark Naggar, the program manager for the HHS Buyers Club, said the department’s Office of Population Affairs is asking for help to improve and expand their online presence and services. But what stands out about OPA’s decision to come to the Buyers Club instead of going out with a new solicitation on its own is the belief that there has to be a better way to buy these services.

“For OPA, they had a previous contract where the contractor was not able to meet their needs. Some were very simple. Some were a little more difficult. One of the reasons why it failed is that we are not vetting contractors properly. It’s easy to ask for text-based proposals for certain things,” Naggar said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “But when it comes to IT, it’s really important to make sure they know what they are doing and to assess their capabilities rather than a text-based homework assignment.”

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For those complex IT programs, Naggar said the Buyers Club is using a different approach for OPA’s small business set-aside RFP. It requires vendors to submit an eight-page high-level paper describing their approach and costs. Then, the acquisition team will choose the top five vendors and award them $10,000 each to develop a prototype, provide in-person briefings and a more typical description of their capabilities and plans.

The first round of papers are due to the Buyers Club on June 15.

“This eight-page concept paper really asks them to tell us how they can meet our objectives and to explain to us what their agile delivery model is like and some past performance references as well,” he said.

Naggar said his office then will complete a downselect to no more than five vendors to compete in the second stage. HHS set a deadline of July 23 for round two proposals with an award planned for Aug. 7.

“The primary driver here for evaluation is going to be the functional prototype, which we see as being really substantive and really helps the end user of the mission to determine the true capability as well as an oral presentation,” he said.

Vendors provided suggestions for improvements

Naggar said this approach is similar to the one the Buyers Club used last year for similar website develop services for Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. The Buyers Club awarded the multi-year contract to Akira Technologies in October to make ASPE’s website more interactive, simpler and more social. The contract also requires Akira to redesign the website to increase traffic.

“They were basically our guinea pig. They worked with us and it took some time. We went from 30-page requirement down to a nine-page statement of objectives,” he said. “They have been so happy with the outcome, not only with the acquisition process and evaluating the prototypes, but primarily where the rubber meets the road with the agile development process.”

The biggest difference between the approach the Buyers Club took with ASPE and the one they are taking with OPA is the addition of the oral presentations and the requirement for vendors to submit a final cost proposal in stage 1 instead of being able to resubmit their estimates during stage 2.

Naggar said these improvements came from the debriefs of the 24 contractors that bid on the ASPE solicitation.

“We did this because it really just makes common sense. We want to make improvements because we are testing different models. We are testing different processes, and we want to make sure all the stakeholders can lend a hand to improve the processes,” he said. “Some of those feedbacks included asking for more time to develop prototypes. Two weeks was sufficient to develop a concept paper. We want to make this competitive and see what companies can come up with in a limited time because in agile sprint process typically two weeks to a month and we want to emulate some of those processes to determine how they will fair when they actually have to do the work in that process.”

Expanding Buyers Clubs across government

Naggar said the Buyers Club will continue to evolve in its second year. He said the goal is not grow, but teach and expand the Buyers Club concept across all of HHS.

“We are reassessing our strategic plan. We are looking at the metrics we met, the ones that we didn’t meet. We were very ambitious in how we set out to do things. We met a lot of our goals, but for various different reasons we didn’t hit others. But we still had tremendous success, probably more than we anticipated in the first year,” he said. “We are in the process of trying to determine what we actually need, and we are trying to maintain a small footprint.”

The idea of expanding the Buyers Club concept isn’t just happening at HHS.

Naggar said the Office of Federal Procurement Policy is encouraging these concepts too.

The Homeland Security Department has created a procurement innovation lab, which is similar to HHS’s version.

Naggar said additional RFPs are in the works. He wouldn’t offer too many details, but said each will test out different acquisition concepts to improve the process and ensure results.

Naggar said there are a few basic rules for agencies interested in setting up their own version of the HHS Buyers Club.

“Always look for ways to improve your processes, and you may not know the answer so you may have to ask or bring in others to provide additional guidance and advice,” he said. “At the end of the day when it’s all said and done, the HHS Buyers Club is trying to improve the acquisition of IT services to be more effective and efficient. We want to increase the success rates because that will really benefit the end user, HHS and other organizations and it will benefit the taxpayer. With the recent passage of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act and some other legislation that is out there circulating around, it’s really the prime time to make these changes.”

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