DHS officials: Failed FLASH procurement a chance to learn from mistakes

Soraya Correa speaks March 28 at FedScoop's 2017 IT Modernization Summit in Washington, D.C. (FedScoop)

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The Department of Homeland Security officials in charge of a recently cancelled innovative acquisition vehicle accepted their fault in the failed program Tuesday, positioning it as an opportunity to learn from their missteps.

After numerous protests hampered the department’s ability to get its $1.5 billion Flexible Agile Support for the Homeland contract vehicle up and running, DHS finally cancelled the procurement in late May, officials said. FLASH was meant to embrace a number of concepts promoted by the U.S. Digital Services Playbook, including iterative development cycles, user-centered design and DevOps practices.

“There were some mistakes, there were some missteps, and certainly we’re going to learn from them,” DHS Chief Procurement Officer Soraya Correa said at an ACT-IAC acquisition event in Washington, D.C.

“I own it. I lived it. It is my project, it is my failure,” she said.

While Correa wanted to reserve giving a detailed account of what went wrong for her team in DHS’s Procurement Innovation Lab, which is developing an official report, she offered that “sometimes we need to expand on our training a little bit.”

“We had an agile process for doing the solicitation and the evaluation, but we fell back to a waterfall documentation process, which caused us some problems,” she explained.

Acting DHS Undersecretary for Management Chip Fulghum, who was also part of the panel, explained it similarly: “There are some things we did that we could’ve done better. We were very agile in how we approached the procurement itself. We were traditional in how we approached the backend and the documentation and some other things, which we’ll learn from.”

Fulghum came to Correa’s defense, jointly accepting the blame for the failed program.

“She didn’t own it by herself,” said Fulghum, who was DHS CFO when FLASH was introduced. “I owned it right there with her.”

He sang praises to Correa’s innovative spirit and dedication to mixing things up in pursuit of better procurement.

“It would be very easy, in the procurement community in particular, to just sit back in their little cube and do business as usual,” he said. “Soraya, every day, encourages her folks to put their toe on the lie, never go over the line, but put their toe on the line and continue to push it out each and every day.”

Despite the cancellation of FLASH, Fulghum wants DHS to use the experience to continue learning.

“The innovation that went on in that solicitation should never be lost,” he said. “We need to build on that and continue to do that.”

He continued: “[W]e don’t learn a darn thing from success. The most successful people on the planet learned through failure, and they learned through a lot of failure. And as long as you’re learning through it, we need to figure out ways in the federal government to reward that innovation and actually reward the folks who really took risks, took a chance and didn’t get it completely right, but learned from it, and then they’ll move forward and make us even better in the future.”

Indeed, Correa called FLASH an innovative acquisition experiment. “And so as happens in experiments, some things go well and some things don’t.”

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Acquisition, DHS, FLASH, Innovation, Soraya Correa