HHS Buyers Club: An innovative acquisition case study

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Anne Rung wants to show off the ways agencies are using the Digital Services Playbook and the TechFAR handbook in their procurements.

Last week Rung, the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, launched the first in a new series of podcasts called “Behind the Buy,” meant to highlight innovative acquisitions using the two tools. In the program’s debut, Rung talks with Mark Naggar, program manager for HHS Buyers Club within the Department of Health and Human Services’ IDEA Lab, about his experience during Buyers Clubs’ first procurement, which FedScoop wrote about last fall.

Conducting the procurement for HHS’ assistant secretary for planning and evaluation, Naggar and the HHS Buyers Club were tasked with redesigning a Web content management system, public-facing Internet sites, an internal intranet site and two internally designed databases. When ASPE came to Naggar with a 28-page statement of work, he said “they were clearly headed down the path of a traditional six-month procurement likely resulting in the selection of a contractor with the best written proposal.”

Instead, Naggar went to the fourth play in the Digital Services Playbook: “Build the service using agile and iterative practices.” A big part of that play involves a minimum viable product, which played a key role in HHS Buyers Club’ two-stage procurement. Instead of basing a major money decision on a proposal, Naggar and his office asked offerors to write an abbreviated statement of objectives and concept paper in stage one, and then in stage two, if selected, the small businesses were required to create a working prototype.

“The playbook’s stage solicitation approach reduced the burden for small business to compete and the nominal funding covered the cost during the prototype phase, which enabled the government to truly better assess their capabilities,” he told Rung in the podcast. Using the prototyping approach was looked upon favorably by the project office, he said, “because it gave them a far better sense of the offerors’ likelihood of success in performance than can be determined from a text-based proposal, which generally turns into a contest of who is the best proposal writer.”

In addition to cutting the procurement length down to eight weeks, Buyers Club’s agile approach made use of contractors’ feedback. Before and after the procurement, Naggar and his team asked potential participants what they thought of the innovative acquisition method.

“We didn’t want to release and RFP and not get responses. We wanted to make sure we maximized our chance of success and mission success,” he said. “And by doing so, like you do really with agile development and user engagement, we engaged the key stakeholders, the contractors, and they provided us responses and gave us suggestions of what would make it more appealing for them to participate, and we incorporated that into our strategy.”

ASPE considers the procurement a success, calling it “night and day compared to the traditional waterfall method,” according to Naggar. It’s even caught Rung attention, who said she’s talking to agency senior procurement executives about standing up Buyers Clubs in other agencies and then linking them together through a Federal Buyers Club “to really help facilitate sharing innovative contracting ideas and best practices across the agencies.”

Rung, for the sake of the less informed, questioned if an approach that seemed so “sound and straight forward” was used a lot in government. Naggar gave her a solid “no.”

“We wish it were — we’re trying to make some changes,” he said. “A lot of times people don’t consider all of the stakeholders and all of the needs they have. I think if you take a step back and take a look at the big picture … this type of collaborative approach really leads to success and mitigates failure. But people operate in their own lanes and utilize the same strategies they’ve always had, and I think stepping away from that seems really different to people, and it’s difficult make adjustment to change like that.”

But for those who are simply afraid of doing something different, Naggar gave an encouraging perspective.

“No one on our procurement team or the program office or any of the internal stakeholders had ever tried a two-stage down select using this approach, and the majority of the offerors had never experienced it either,” he said. “And yet it still worked.”

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Anne Rung, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Departments, Government IT News, HHS Buyers Club, Mark Naggar, Procurement
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