Agencies struggle with DevOps procurement

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DevOps remains a “small pilot effort on a handful of applications” at many federal agencies, in part, because it requires accepting greater ambiguity in the procurement process, according to a new white paper.

ACT-IAC defines DevOps as an organizational philosophy where practices like the agile software development methodology are combined with tools to rapidly deliver IT apps and services.

ACT-IAC’s DevOps Working Group released a white paper last week compiled from survey results and hundreds of conversations with government officials. The paper includes case studies from agencies six agencies: the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, IRS, National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Park Service, and National Science Foundation.

DevOps has agencies seek potential solutions earlier in the development process than traditional procurement, when specific requirements aren’t known, which makes evaluating contracts more challenging, according to the paper.

ACT-IAC found complying with the Federal Acquisition Regulation is a “legitimate concern,” and program managers worry about selecting a vendor lacking the right skills.

The paper recommends shifting to agile procurement, which focuses on outcomes rather than product specifications.

“It concentrates on allowing flexibility by focusing on explaining your problem and allowing contractors or providers to provide a vision for how to move forward,” reads the white paper. “To execute effectively, it is necessary to avoid focusing evaluation on what will be created that will likely change over time, instead focus on how contractors plan to approach the current environment and challenges.”

ACT-IAC offers a number of ways to accomplish agile procurement.

Using a statement of objectives (SOO) in lieu of a statement of work (SOW) or performance work statement (PWS) gives contractors a more open framework to respond with. The agency can then discuss the SOO with vendors in an early white-boarding session.

Or the agency can down select a group of contractors to write the SOW collaboratively.

Coding challenges — whether on a deadline or in-person — allow vendors to demonstrate their technical skills in solving a problem, though the cost can limit competition, according to the paper.

ACT-IAC also recommends increasing oral presentations when evaluating contractors while decreasing the duration and value of contracts to minimize the damage when an agency does select the wrong one for a project.

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ACT-IAC, agile development, DevOps, Procurement
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