Behind the scenes of 18F’s agile contract

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The vendors who competed in the General Services Administration’s 18F Agile Delivery Services Blanket Purchase Agreement won’t know for some time if they’ll be one of the 20 selected to join the contracting vehicle. But for many, just competing was an eye-opener to the transition to more agile and customer-focused procurement cycles and tech development in the federal government.

“It really is potentially a game-changer in terms of the way that not only federal procurement is done, but also the way new federal technology development is done in partnership with vendors as well as in-house,” Andrew Hoppin, president and co-founder of New York-based BPA competitor NuCivic, told FedScoop.

The agile BPA, which 18F introduced late last year before launching its request for quotes in June, relies on companies building working software prototypes during a short timeframe to evaluate their competency in line with the Digital Services Playbook rather than a written proposal. In this alpha stage of the BPA — meaning this is the first run of the contract, and there will likely be some changes made to it based on its outcome — participating vendors were asked to build a product using open Food and Drug Administration datasets.

Many participants believe this prototype-driven model as a procurement methodology will be effective in helping rid the more than $80 billion federal IT budget of wasteful spending on failed projects, especially those led by incapable contractors.

“We have the ability with this procurement to demonstrate what we can do versus just simply writing a 30- or 40-page technical approach about how we would do it,” said Jerad Spiegel, CEO of Alexandria, Va.-based Phase One. “Whether they have the competency to actually do the work or not is very difficult for folks to decipher” with a written proposal, which many companies often outsource to elevate their chances of an award.

“In this response, it’s a real demonstration of what our technical capabilities are,” said Joe Truppo, senior manager at McLean, Virginia’s Octo Consulting. Truppo described having agile methodology as part of the evaluating criteria in addition to the development process as an exciting way to compete for a government contract.

Aaron Pava, the chief experience officer of CivicActions, a team of agile, civic-minded technologists dispersed across the country, said the BPA is a groundbreaking experiment for the future of government procurement, distancing itself from the riskier waterfall methodology.

“We all know the problems with the default way of doing things is you end up with Healthcare.gov,” Pava said. “And this is the antidote to that.”

The learning curve

Of course, any new process has its hiccups, and this BPA was no different. In addition to some delays in delivery of the BPA’s RFQ and extensions of its initial deadline, participating companies saw some ways the vehicle could improve upon this initial run.

Because of the vagueness of the requirements in the RFQ, teams submitted more than 100 questions, forcing a deadline extension so 18F could respond.

“They didn’t give a ton of specificity on what they were looking for, other than informing us of the open data sets they’d be looking for,” Octo Executive Vice President Jay Shah said. “They kind of gave us carte blanche in terms of describing what the business problem is that we were trying to solve.”

The team at Phase One felt this “allowed you to not only demonstrate the agile, technical development side of things, but as a company do you have the creativity to come up with really quality ideas and then execute on those ideas,” Spiegel said. This was a “truer test of a company’s agile ability than perhaps a prototype against a big giant requirements document. It’s more than ‘can these guys code for a week or two.'”

The time element also kept some teams on their toes. Most agile development firms are used to sprints that last a couple weeks.

“For us it was pretty challenging to go through all of these issues in 10 days,” said Henry Poole, CEO of CivicActions. “We’re used to two-week sprints, not two-day sprints.” For his team, this meant letting go of some of the quality it might typically put into other projects.

“We had to let go,” Poole said. “There’s going to be some mistakes in it. That’s not the point. The point is: Are we following the best practices and are we shipping early, are we revising often, are we following the practices that government really needs to see? And it’s hard to fake that.”

Even 18F in its last, fleeting piece of advice to participating vendors offered: “just ship it.”

Still, the vendors walked away with positive outlook on this new vehicle’s first iteration.

Right now, Hoppin said, “18F is the exception, not the rule. And this RFQ is the exception, not the rule.” However, “I think this could be a rallying point,” he said.

Spiegel of Phase One said other agencies around government should take notice of what 18F is doing.

“Some of the lessons learned from this really can be shared actively in other agencies,” he said.

And while the team at CivicActions “hadn’t seen anything like this before,” Pava said it’s not long before this sort of process inches closer and closer to being the norm.

“We’re starting to see agile and its transformative effects on the horizon in lots of different areas,” he said. “It’s the inevitable.”

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Acquisition, agile development, Citizen Services, Government IT News, Procurement
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