Fed IT Leaders Discuss Acquisition Modernization Successes

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Amid the challenges of modernizing IT acquisition, Federal IT leaders today discussed how their agencies have made progress in speeding up the process, and how they can scale up.

Speaking at ACT-IAC’s Acquisition Excellence conference on Tuesday, the panel touched on the common theme of embracing an agile approach to delivery, instead of the traditional 500-page draft statement of work.

“We found that it was cutting out a lot of innovative capabilities and start-ups that didn’t really know how to effectively interact with government,” said David Shive, CIO at GSA.

Shive emphasized the shift from telling vendors how they should deliver, to focusing on the business problem at hand, and using the vendor’s expertise to figure out how to deliver.

“It was amazing how that transformed the discussion, asking questions of experts, rather than telling experts what you want. We started to get some very different responses back from our industry partners, big and small,” he described.

Amid GSA’s best practices, Shive pointed to the use of innovation contract line item numbers (CLINs) to help agencies pivot if needed. He also highlighted the need for a DevOps approach, including the involvement of the Contracting Officer’s Representative (COR) throughout the process.

“The fact is, most people are experiential learners, and when they get bolted on to a process or project or delivery capability, even if they don’t have that acumen early on, we find they pick it up pretty readily,” he said. “It’s not reasonable to expect CORs to be deep technologists … but having them working alongside technologists, they pick up that capability pretty readily.”

Maj. Matthew Nelson, chief of the agile acquisition branch within the Air Force’s Kessel Run program, touted the importance of cloud to the program’s success, especially on receiving Authority to Operate (ATO).

“It went from a 409-day process to receive an ATO – we had our prudent official come down, sit with us for a week, watch us and how we build software, and as long as we build software using an IaaS [infrastructure-as-a-service], deploying it on an accredited platform-as-a-service, and incorporating a modern continuous-delivery continuous-integration pipeline, we’re now at a continuous Authority to Operate,” said Nelson.

Nelson also noted that Kessel Run had reduced application development time to 128 days on average, reduced the time to stand up a server to 10 minutes, and stood up 18 modular contracts in the last 20 months. The program, which operates out of an office location in downtown Boston, puts government employees and six different contractors under one roof to work together on software projects.

While the Kessel Run program is still a few parsecs short of scaling up to the entire Pentagon, Nelson shared the best practices he saw as most relevant to the department at-large, including user-centric design, setting target conditions, and of course, embracing an agile approach.

“If they want a car, you can give them a skateboard at the beginning, iterate that into a scooter, and then a year from now, you’ll have a car,” he quipped.

While Federal IT employees may find frustration in the acquisition process, setbacks can stem from the government’s expressed priorities, said Florence Kasule, procurement expert at the United States Digital Service.

“If we say that our major thing to identify is if a vendor is working is 10,000 reports, they will give you 10,000 reports. Will you get executable code? Nope, because that’s not what you were chasing,” said Kasule.

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