HHS Buyers Club eyes new procurement project

The HHS building in Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

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In its second attempt at agile procurement, the Department of Health and Human Services Buyers Club is looking to build off the success and lessons learned from its inaugural project.

When the HHS Buyers Club — a small team in the department’s IDEA Lab focused on demonstrating and testing innovative acquisition models — launched about a year ago, Program Manager Mark Naggar knew there was a better way federal agencies could buy IT, but he was unsure how procurement officials accustomed to traditional waterfall methods might take to concepts like agile development and human-centered design. After a successful pilot procurement with HHS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, though, Naggar hopes word will spread about what they’re achieving with each new project.

“It’s like you can push that domino, and the dominos may continue to fall, you hope,” Naggar told FedScoop.

Now, the Buyers Club is teaming up with the Office of Population Affairs to help find a vendor capable of redesigning its website and Title X Family Planning Clinics database, all while maintaining those systems until development is finished. Much like the ASPE procurement — which required development of a content management system, and a redesign of its website and intranet — this request for proposals uses a two-stage selection model that depends more heavily on a working prototype for award than a written proposal.

OPA came to the Buyers Club after an earlier vendor on the project failed to meet the office’s requirements.

“You have a group that’s coming off of a failure … and they’ve wasted, arguably, tax payer dollars,” Naggar said. “And it’s not their fault. They entered into an agreement they thought would be appropriate, and they didn’t get what they needed.”

Naggar said many groups have reached out to the Buyers Club after a failed procurement. But with limited resources, his team has to be selective about the projects it takes on.

“We would like to do a lot more projects, but we’re a little thin on resources,” Naggar said. The Buyers Club doesn’t charge for its work, so it has to pick projects that fit its workload and eventually build up to bigger ones, he said. “We don’t want to take too big of a bite. The more complex the project, the higher the risk of failure. We want to build up gradually and test things before we scale.”

But so far, Naggar feels the projects are moving in the right direction — though to call anything a success yet would be premature.

“We’re not just doing a project and moving on to the next one,” he said. “I talk to ASPE every week about how they’re doing. We have to continuously learn from how the process is going … so we can keep sharing it with other people.”

That sharing is the bigger mission of the Buyers Club. Naggar, like many of the teams around government encouraging more agile and innovative procurement, said the IT disaster around Healthcare.gov underscored the need to reduce the high failure rate of acquiring IT. (Naggar said the failure rate is 70 percent, while others say it’s closer to 90 percent.) But with more than $80 million spent on federal IT each year, Healthcare.gov was realistically more of “a drop in the bucket,” he said. “It was a giant window that opened, but it doesn’t mean that there are not a lot of others out there.”

Naggar and the HHS Buyers Club want to show that failing IT acquisition is pervasive and demonstrate that, while there’s not a perfect way to do it, there are some better options out there.

“There’s a dramatic need for improvement in IT procurement — probably procurement in general and acquisition in general,” he said. “There’s no guarantee that any contract or any grant that is issued will be successful. All you can do is develop protocols or processes or models that can mitigate risk as much as possible.”

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