2016 Report to Congress

Transforming Federal IT Procurement

The Challenge

Government procurement cycles do not keep pace with fast-changing technology and user needs. This is largely due to a reliance on waterfall development methods where requirements are defined and documented in full detail before any design, development or user testing can take place. When tied to inflexible contracts, this approach makes it very difficult to build an easy to use, effective digital service. Adapting patterns and best practices from private industry will allow the Federal Government to deliver products faster, cheaper, and at higher quality.

Project Impact Summary

  • The USDS procurement team has launched several projects to help the Federal Government enter into better, more agile contracts and buying decisions.
  • The objective is not only to change the way IT services and products are acquired, but to model new procurement processes for the government at large.
  • During a discovery sprint, the USDS team made recommendations for modernizing SAM.gov, the system businesses use to receive contracts and grants from the Federal Government.
  • The GSA has accepted the recommendation to move SAM.gov to a Common Services Platform, allowing developers to make speedier improvements to the existing system, automate more services, and increase security.
  • USDS also advised SBA to consolidate certification systems for small businesses seeking government contracts. SBA has since moved to a modern technology stack, and will soon process all certifications through certify.sba.gov.
  • In October 2015, USDS and OFPP launched the Digital IT Acquisition Professional Training (DITAP) program, piloting a course that successfully taught federal contracting professionals material relevant to digital services procurement.
  • USDS and OFPP are now working to transition this program to GSA and other Federal Government agencies.
  • Also in partnership with OFPP, USDS developed the TechFAR Handbook, and the TechFAR Hub, to advise all federal agencies on how to adopt more flexible acquisition practices.

The Solution

USDS has a dedicated acquisition team working to improve the government technology marketplace and to help the government make better buying decisions. The USDS procurement team has launched several solutions since its inception and continues to evaluate new potential solutions.

System for Award Management (SAM.gov)

In order for businesses to receive a contract or grant from the government, they are required to register in the General Services Administration’s (GSA) System for Award Management (SAM.gov). However, because the process is so cumbersome, many businesses are discouraged from engaging with the government. The USDS and GSA completed a two-week discovery sprint in March 2016 to define what a successful SAM.gov modernization would look like. This included evaluating the technology, business processes, and the customer experience underlying SAM and the related Integrated Award Environment.

USDS’ recommendations from the discovery sprint included:

  • Shift from Process to Product. In order to develop and ship such a large solution, the work must be centered around the idea that it is delivering a federal-wide product capable of meeting the demands and objectives of various and competing end user needs.
  • Invest in the Team. Rather than hiring external experts, or bringing on other teams, GSA should make an investment in and prioritize comprehensive and frequent training for all roles within its Integrated Award Environment, from management to external stakeholders to contracting officers.
  • Empower a New Team Culture. The unified team has the potential to deliver a powerful digital service by adopting a culture that embraces change, challenges the status quo, and does not accept anything less than excellence. The ideal team is self-motivated to look at everything as an opportunity to solve end users’ problems.
  • Deliver. Deliver. Deliver. The main benefit for adopting an agile development methodology is the ability to accelerate product delivery. Leadership must dissolve any fears of failure that create hesitancy when making a change to a product—whether it’s prototypes, beta versions, or enhancements. The team has universally expressed a willingness to move to continuous integration, rapid delivery model, and USDS provided a 6-month plan for this transition.
  • Migrate to a Secure, Robust Services Platform. The SAM.gov environment is transitioning to a Common Service Platform that will allow applications to be built on top of an infrastructure layer. Adopting continuous integration, implementing the “DevOps” practice of integrating system operations with application development teams and processes, and establishing protocols for a multi-vendor environment to implement changes on the new platform would speed improvements. In addition, there should be a drive to automate services and provide real-time data, such as TIN validation. To improve security, USDS recommended SAM.gov implement host segmentation and network security controls for restricting access to sensitive data on the Secure FTP service. Other key areas of opportunity recommended to improve the basic platform include open-source, standardization, and implementing a mitigation strategy for DDoS protection aligned with the public release of services on the Common Service Platform (CSP).

GSA has accepted the recommendations and is in the process of making nearly all of the changes. They have already restructured their team based on functions and are working cohesively in a team based environment.

Small Business Certifications

It is part of the mission of the Small Business Administration to expedite small businesses’ access to government contracts. Better utilization of the 8(a) Business Development, Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB), HUBZone, and Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business Programs would serve this mission.

In early 2015, SBA asked the USDS to help it modernize and consolidate the systems that power these certification programs. After USDS personnel conducted an initial technical evaluation, the USDS procurement team assisted SBA in developing a contract to create a modern system using the best practices described in the Digital Services Playbook. SBA has since awarded an agile software development contract for revamping these certification processes as part of the SBAOne project.

In just 5 months following the award of the contract, SBA moved to a modern technology stack, hosted on flexible public cloud infrastructure, and launched an eligibility service in December 2015 for the WOSB program. This release was shortly followed by the successful launch of the modernized Woman-Owned Small Business certification system in March 2016 on certify.SBA.gov. Work is underway for the modernization of the 8(a) certification program, for a release planned in early 2017. Eventually all SBA Certifications will be processed through Certify.SBA.Gov.

Digital IT Acquisition Professional Training (DITAP)

Helping the government become smarter buyers requires the establishment of a specialized and educated procurement workforce that understands the digital and IT marketplace, utilizes best practices for IT purchasing, and capitalizes on the power of the government acting as a single purchasing entity and the economies of scale this provides. To achieve this, the USDS and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) have partnered to develop a digital IT acquisition professional community (DITAP).

The first component of this community was a training and certification program for contracting officers. USDS and OFPP posted a prize competition on Challenge.gov in May 2015 to develop the Digital Service Contracting Professional Training and Development Program for the Federal Government. As a part of this process, USDS and OFPP held a Reverse Industry Day where 70 representatives from vendors familiar with agile software development techniques, system integrators, collegiate entities, and training developer came together to confirm that the specific training did not yet exist and confirm that the Challenge.gov platform would be an effective path forward in developing the training. In all, 23 submissions were received, 3 finalists provided mock classroom presentations of their content and assessment plan, and by October 2015, the final winner began its finalized 6-month course with the first class of 30 Contracting Professionals from 20 federal agencies.

Over the 6 months, the attendees completed 11 days of classroom training on agile software development methodology, cloud hosting, and the “DevOps” practice of integrating system operations with application development teams and processes. The attendees completed 120 hours of self-directed learning and webinars, heard from 10 guest speakers, supported 6 live digital assignments, and completed a final capstone assessment of skills. Since the course ended in March 2016, 6 participants received promotions or changed job roles to take on IT work, 12 participants were assigned digital service acquisition work or are working with an agency digital service team, and two were named agency Acquisition Innovation Advocates. 90% of the 28 graduates felt they were ready to conduct digital service acquisitions in their agency. USDS and OFPP are restructuring the next round of implementation based on these results. The second class began in July 2016.

USDS and OFPP are currently training Federal Acquisition Institute (FAI) facilitators on how to conduct the program, for transfer of responsibilities in FY17. In addition, USDS and OFPP are finalizing the Federal Acquisition Certification in Contracting (FAC-C) Digital Service certificate program requirements and encouraging the development of similar training programs for government Contracting Officer Representatives and Project Managers. The long-term goal is for any federal training institution to be able to use and update the course material in an open source manner to create their own development program without incurring the cost of content.

Success Criteria Status
60 Contracting Officers trained in digital service acquisition. In progress. 28 completed pilot. 30 started next round in July 2016

TechFAR Handbook

In the Government, digital services projects too often fail to meet user expectations or contain unused or unusable features. Several factors contribute to these outcomes, including, overly narrow interpretations of what is allowed by acquisition regulations. The Office of Federal Procurement Policy, with the assistance of the USDS, developed the TechFAR to highlight flexibilities in the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) that can help agencies implement “plays” in the Digital Services Playbook.

The TechFAR is a handbook that describes relevant FAR authorities and includes practice tips, sample language, and a compilation of FAR provisions that are relevant to adopting an agile style of software development as the primary means of delivering software solutions. Agile software development is a proven commercial methodology characterized by incremental and iterative processes where releases are produced in close collaboration with the customer. The TechFAR facilitates a common understanding among agency stakeholders of the best ways to use acquisition authorities to maximize the likelihood for success in agile contracts and there is nothing prohibitive in the Federal Acquisition Regulations for adopting these methods and re-engineering contracts to support delivery of quality products. This handbook is a living document; users are urged to provide feedback, share experiences, and offer additional strategies, practice tips, policies, or contract language that may be used to assure that IT acquisitions achieve their desired results.

USDS also released the TechFAR Hub on GSA’s Acquisition Gateway. The TechFAR Hub is designed to advise all federal agencies on how to implement best practices, as described in the digital service playbook and TechFAR, and as a community space for digital service practitioners.

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