Veterans Affairs makes a single front door for contractors and would-be innovators

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For many years the Department of Veterans Affairs has worked to make it easier for veterans to access VA services. Now the department is two months into an effort to make it easier for vendors — and what the department calls “innovators” — to put their services and capabilities before VA program and contract people. It’s a...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

For many years the Department of Veterans Affairs has worked to make it easier for veterans to access VA services. Now the department is two months into an effort to make it easier for vendors — and what the department calls “innovators” — to put their services and capabilities before VA program and contract people. It’s a website called Pathfinder. For how it works, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Michael Parrish, the VA’s chief acquisition officer.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Tell us about Pathfinder. Now I went to the website and there’s basically two buttons. And you go this way, if you consider yourself an innovator or someone who has something to share, you go that way on the other button, if you want to sell to VA. So tell us more about what you’re trying to get done here?

Michael Parrish: Sure. So the Pathfinder website, which is pathfinder.va.gov is what I call a fusion of acquisition and innovation, it’s the first of its kind, to be able to consider the entire lifecycle of a new product. So I’ll start with the innovation side: one of the things we want to do is be able to capture new ideas and new inventions and things that we in VA can possibly reuse, but evaluate and possibly help fund and grow and incubate new solutions. And then obviously, evaluate them from the standpoint that if they can work inside VA, then we can commercialize it inside VA, make it a standard product. So that’s the acquisition side from the developing a new product early on requirements to us actually using it. On the sell side, it’s a way to capture market information and data from our vendors that link in the same way. And there’s been the proverbial throughout government of hey, we sent something in and we want to sell you this widget and it goes into a black hole or nobody knows where it goes to we have VA for me, particularly 17,000 acquisition professionals, and I’m not sure which person it would tie to. So this system is what I call an EII doctrine. It’s called easy to use, integrated and intelligent. So the system is easy to use in that it’s intuitive and just follow it down and answer the questions. And then it’ll get you to a live body. So you’ll actually get somebody that will respond back to you within seven days with a real comment of either we have a need or something but at least it starts that conversation. Whereas before, like I said, it just goes into a black hole. It’s also integrated because it applies to all VA not just one siloed organization. And finally, it’s intelligent because the system intelligently directs, either innovators or vendors, or both to the right person, live body inside VA. So it’s really a new effort to help be what we call the front door to the VA and help address frustrations both internally and externally. It’s the speed innovation, speed acquisition to be able to give them the solutions.

Tom Temin: And with respect to the development side or the prototyping side or the new idea, the innovation side, my direct question is does VA have OTA like some parts of the Defense Department and other agencies?

Michael Parrish: We are working on that with language with the Hill and others. But you know, we’ll focus on our small business innovative research SBIR and STTR efforts. One of the ideas of innovating the speed and applying the need for OTAs is the fact that the traditional procurement processes take an inordinate amount of time. And that’s something that I’ve tried to help reduce as well. And so OTA is indeed a consideration for VA to be able to incorporate that going forward. So you’ll see more of that to follow.

Tom Temin: In the meantime, though, you do have the SBIRs and you also have grants, too, correct for development?

Michael Parrish: Right. And there are multiple innovation related contracts and awards out there that help accelerate some of these new innovative ideas around the new things that are going on.

Tom Temin: And so therefore, would it be fair to say that VA, like the Defense Department has at least a potential of what they call the valley of death, from finding something, wow, this could really be great in the hands of our practitioners, whatever that function might be at VA, and the actual deploying it to them en masse.

Michael Parrish: And I think part of the challenge, you’ve got to say I call it like the Indiana Jones effect. Remember, at the end of the movie, the ark gets put into a giant, massive warehouse. And, you know, the researchers thought it’s a great, wonderful thing that exactly to your point, it gets put into a cabin, and nobody ever uses it. So we’re adding a governance acquisition structure to this. And that’s kind of what Pathfinder does is that front entry point, but it allows us from a procurement standpoint to kind of help work with the innovators to understand if that cool new widget actually meets the VA requirements of increased access and outcomes. And so we’re doing evaluation and structured oversight before it does go into the valley of death, we try to avoid that aspect.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Michael Parrish, he’s senior acquisition officer at the Veterans Affairs Department. So then something that comes in that catches someone’s eye then through Pathfinder could then be directed to the proper program or spending authority that could get that prototyping going, say for example?

Michael Parrish: Exactly right. That’s both internal and true. Exactly. That’s exactly the intent.

Tom Temin: And on the acquisition side, someone that just simply has an existing product or service. Have you noticed anything that has come through, yet, have anything come to your attention that says, hey, look at this. We never knew these guys were out here?

Michael Parrish: Sure, absolutely. A great win that just this morning is you know, one of the uniqueness items is you know, in the VA we procure medical supplies and of course with that goes a certain level of certification with the [Food and Drug Administration] and in various different requirements. And one of the big challenges, and I’m sure you might have heard the phrase, you know, build American, buy American. So I’m our senior accountable official for our Made in America effort, especially around our PPE, personal protective equipment for our medical professionals. And, you know, the challenges. And it’s not just the VA problem, it’s an American problem that we’ve outsourced a lot of our manufacturing over the past decades. And so as we’re looking at this, and we’re trying to make sure we’re on shoring some of these new manufacturing ideas, it’s we don’t know where these small businesses are, or where these other American made business are that otherwise we would have to outsource over to China or elsewhere. And just this morning, there was someone who’s come on board said, hey, we’re opening up a manufacturing plant. And so through the Pathfinder, we captured that and now we’re actually evaluating to make sure that they do have all the proper FDA certifications and efforts like that. So that in itself will be a major win if it works out that these guys are building in America.

Tom Temin: So that might be a project for a contracting officer’s representative, for example, to check them out to make sure it’s all what they say?

Michael Parrish: Sure, we actually have the team because of the Pathfinder, because it went to a live body. They said, thanks. And then kind of raise escalation to the evaluators who are now doing that vetting process exactly right now, so if we didn’t have Pathfinder, it would have been looking at the draw that somebody sent an email or something.

Tom Temin: And a lot of agencies, including VA have this customer experience drive that they’re under, and the deployment of digital services as opposed to direct medical services with medicine and medical devices? Is that part of what you’re hoping to uncover with Pathfinder, maybe better ways of doing things, better ways of deploying digital services? If someone said, hey, I have the best thing here since the blue button.

Michael Parrish: Sure. Yeah. And that’s exactly on the innovation side is is, you know, we don’t know what we don’t know. But we are 100% focused on, you know, as a service level veteran, myself, I’m 100% focused on helping my fellow veterans out for having those new, easy to use, integrated, intelligent systems that are human centered design focused technologies. And then in the space of medicine, 3D bone printing, and some of these new technologies. These are things that are the future of medicine, telehealth, I don’t know if you knew one of the first telehealth appointments in the VA was in 1967. And the VA invented the pacemaker. Imagine that way back when so VA is known worldwide for being an innovation leader, especially the medical space, but it also includes services and processes.

Tom Temin: And what about any tie in with what might be happening on the innovation front, say, in the Military Health System, because really, in some ways, VA is an extension of that, at least in the eyes of those that serve and become veterans.

Michael Parrish: Sure, the way I couch this is we are similar families. But we are different in that, you know, the mission of the Department of Defense is to fight and win our nation’s wars, that’s their primary effort. And then medicine is what we call it combat service support effort. Wearing my national security hat. And then on our side, our mission is to care for those who borne the battle and their widows and orphans. And so our main mission is medicine. And so we’re leading the effort. But one of the goals, obviously, is to work collaboratively with our DoD brethren to make sure, and sisters, to make sure that we’re putting in complementary technologies. And we’re both expanding the knowledge envelope from medical innovation.

Tom Temin: And I suppose if someone came into Pathfinder, and said, I have the golden bullet that’s going to make that EHR work like a charm, it probably take a close look at that one.

Michael Parrish: Sure, yeah, no, we’re obligated to look at all opportunities. But that would be a big process solution. And to that example, it would come to the innovation team, then we’ll get moved over to the HR folks along with our cross departmental team of technology and health care.

Tom Temin: And just getting back to the Pathfinder itself. You mentioned that, yes, there’s a front end website, which takes people through various steps to submit, what is this they wish to submit. But then you indicated, there’s kind of a back end process of AI, or some type of automated way of evaluating what’s coming in, so that it can be directed to the person who might be able to do something about it?

Michael Parrish: Absolutely. So you know, in technical terms, it’s really an aggregator. So it’s basically a set of questions. And then it’s kind of, you know, the yes-no type of wire diagram that will will direct to the right area. But to your point, we’re incorporating in some machine learning and some long term things that is, we’re able to capture that about various market research items that that will help us in future ever. So it’s not necessarily one and done when things are incorporated in there, we want to be able to filter it across the entire 17,000 acquisition professional enterprise.

Tom Temin: And if something comes through either side, the innovation or the acquisition side, it ends up as what an email in somebody’s inbox?

Michael Parrish: It does. There’s a what we call a flat file. So at the end of the day in the database that we have designated leaders in the side the effort, it’s focused on what we call category management. So there’s 10 categories of sales and procurement that the OMB is designated for federal procurement. And so it goes from like IT services to travel to etc. So there’s a live body at the end of each of those 10, that their duty is to be able to evaluate and look at everyone and respond to every single one of those inputs as they come in. And they get given them seven days to respond. And I think they were saying they’re averaging about two days response time right now.

Tom Temin: So it sounds like the architecture at least in the logic of Pathfinder could be exportable to other agencies?

Michael Parrish: Sure, there is an discussion ongoing now the potential to make this kind of a bigger standard than just VA. And we’re talking to several other agencies because they said the uniqueness of that fusion of acquisition and innovation. Other agencies have capturing innovation or other agencies have websites that capture marketing stuff, but none have an intelligent system that has that human component at the very end to kind of close the loop and come back into that feedback loop. There’s a lot of interest across government and industry of how we’re operating this.

Tom Temin: And as the top procurement executive, is there sort of a dashboard of Pathfinder that you can check when you feel like seeing what’s going on, taking the temperature?

Michael Parrish: There is and it’s obviously always continuously improved or being improved, but I talked to the team regularly I talked to him this morning and to kind of get a feel for that stuff. So we have that human touch point, but it also has that database that provides real time information on how it’s going.

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