Acquisition is ‘ripe for emerging technology,’ says OFPP’s Newhart

Joanie Newhart speaks March 28, 2019, at the IT Modernization Summit produced by FedScoop. (FedScoop)

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The White House’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy is targeting opportunities to use emerging technologies to improve the federal acquisition process.

Joanie Newhart, associate administrator of acquisition workforce programs within OFPP, said Thursday at FedScoop’s 2019 IT Modernization Summit said that her office and the federal Chief Acquisition Officer Council are “focused on emerging technology and how can we use it in acquisition. We think it’s going to explode this year, so we want to get in front of it and use it wisely.”

While many federal agencies are still trying to grasp how they might use emerging technologies, like automation and artificial intelligence, to drive mission outcomes, many support offices, such as acquisition teams, are finding opportunities to automate burdensome and manual workloads with the novel tech.

“If you think about the acquisition space, it is ripe for emerging technology — robotics, artificial intelligence — because there is so many manual, repetitive, boring parts of the acquisitions process that this emerging technology can really help us with so that people who are highly trained…why use them for this repetitive manual stuff?” Newhart said. “Let’s use their talents where they can make more of an impact.”

She pointed to the Department of Health and Human Services as one agency leading the way in blockchain, AI and automating the contract writing process. “If a contracting officer is doing a contract and you know they’re very overloaded with their workload, and there’s so many rules and regulations,” Newhart said.

There are plenty more examples, she said, and OFPP — which is part of the Office of Management and Budget — is “just trying to find out where people are using it, how they’re using it and then helping other agencies who are not so forward-leaning dip their toe in it, just do something, try it.”

The same goes with helping contracting offices innovate around the acquisition process — really, though, it’s just a matter of identifying acquisition flexibilities and broadcasting them across the government to let contracting officers know they can use them.

“We’re trying to get them to understand there’s a lot of flexibility in the acquisition process,” Newhart said.

This plays into OFPP’s larger Acquisition Modernization Plan. “So our processes are complex and kind of outdated, I’ve got to say, so we’re trying to bring things from industry, good acquisition practices in industry, to government in a very thoughtful, transformative way,” she said. “And part of that whole effort, we’re also going to partner with Congress to try and have some … pilots of different flexibilities we can use as we buy this emerging technology, digital services … and see if we can speed up the acquisition process, how can we buy things better, how can we learn better.”

Ultimately, it signals a bit of a shift in how OFPP works with the federal acquisition community — driving change as a team, working hand in hand, rather than just issuing a directive.

“It used to be if we were trying to drive innovation, we would issue a policy. ‘You will innovate!'” Newhart said. “So now we’re more just trying to be helpful, to get agencies to try new things and also to share those ideas, the best practices, what worked, what didn’t work, across the enterprise so that more people will feel comfortable. It’s not a matter of just saying what the success is. People have to understand how to do it, what steps did people take to have an innovation outcome.”

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Acquisition, emerging technologies, Innovation, Joanie Newhart, Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP)
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