Acquisition 2.0: How much industry collaboration is too much?

The use of Gov 2.0 tools in the procurement process has revived some familiar ethics concerns

Up for Debate

The expert view: Lessons learned in a public forum

The community view: Selected comments from readers

Original discussions on FCW and Govloop

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We put six Gov 2.0 issues up for debate in the FCW Challenge:  Open government plans, social networking, acquisition 2.0, the IT agendaworkplace and cybersecurity.  We got a great sampling of ideas and opinions and present them here along with perspectives of community thought leaders.

The debates about the merits of Acquisition 2.0 will be familiar to anyone who has been following the twists and turns of procurement reform during the past decade or two.

The concept of Acquisition 2.0 — that is, the application of Web 2.0 technology to the procurement process — certainly is new and indeed still evolving. But the basic aim is timeless: facilitate an appropriate level of interaction among government and industry contracting staffs.

Federal acquisition officials have been looking for ways to do just that for many years now. Social networking makes interaction a breeze, whether it’s through a wiki or any other emerging platform. In theory, agencies could post draft statements of work or other documents to get industry feedback about potential problems or alternative approaches.

But the technology also exacerbates pre-2.0 concerns about how much collaboration between government and industry is in fact appropriate. As we phrased it for the FCW Challenge online, we can’t help but think that Acquisition 2.0 is bound to give agency ethics officers the heebie-jeebies.

With that in mind, we asked Mary Davie, assistant commissioner of assisted acquisition services at the General Services Administration, to share what her agency has learned during the early phase of its BetterBuy initiative, one of the federal government’s flagship acquisition initiatives.

Click through the following pages to see the expert view and comments from the community.

Lessons learned in a public forum

By Mary Davie

After evaluating more than 100 ideas submitted on the BetterBuy platform for ways to use collaborative technology to make the acquisition process more open, collaborative and participatory, the General Services Administration launched a wiki (betterbuy.fas.gsa.gov) to gather feedback from the private sector and other interested parties on specific requirements.

We've used the wiki for three requirements so far and to solicit three different kinds of input. In each instance, we've posed questions and posted all sections of the solicitation while making the editing capability available to anyone.

For Data.gov, we wanted industry to help us define requirements and shape the solicitation. For ClearPath, we were primarily conducting market research: Were there alternative solutions we weren't aware of and needed to explore? And for GSA's e-mail and collaboration tools, we wanted input on the acquisition strategy.

So how does using a wiki enhance our traditional processes, and what considerations must we make before changing our business practices to use technology in this way?

We still use traditional procurement practices, including GSA policies and the Federal Acquisition Regulation. For example, to announce the start of the BetterBuy Project, GSA issued a request for information on eBuy. The traditional RFI process seeks to obtain written information, submitted individually and privately, from interested parties. The government then reviews the information and develops the acquisition, including writing an acquisition plan and statement of work, among other components. Those tasks are performed by one or a few government employees, who often rely on others on the government team to review and comment on their work.

By using the wiki, we are testing that process in the open. Think crowdsourcing — letting the best ideas from everyone percolate to the top. That process allows interested parties to provide comments, questions and edits in real time, and receive feedback and answers in real time.

When we started discussing using a wiki in this way, we quickly found that it’s not just the ethics officers who have concerns. In both government and industry, contracting officers, project managers, lawyers and technical advisers had to address a series of issues related to security, records management, privacy, access to information, user registration and authentication, and roles and responsibilities. And they had to figure out how to get or give meaningful input in a manageable way.

In addition, the industry respondents had to decide how to provide input that doesn’t expose proprietary information and doesn’t diminish competitive advantage or corporate value. They also had to determine who would write their company's response and the process by which an approved response would be submitted. When a response is submitted privately, as in an RFI, those are lesser concerns.

Now that we have learned some lessons, we seem to be getting a feel for the best way to use the wiki. We also want to create a forum that enables us to stimulate more of a dialogue between government and industry during the acquisition process, which will raise new concerns, and we might look at what parts of the process are better served by staying behind closed doors.

You can read more about the government and industry perspective on this experiment at blog.betterbuyproject.com.

Reader comments

[Editor's note: Comments have been edited for length, clarity and style.]

Cost vs. Competition

After 30 years, I still would like to see the correlation between increasing competition and decreasing costs. Cost typically is the last and least determinant in a truly innovative competitive environment. If you are buying commodities with exact specifications, you might be correct. But if you have any element of quality criteria, craftsmanship, performance or another technically oriented determinant, then don't think that increasing competition decreases costs. There is not that much of a margin in the competitive environment, regulation has guidelines, cost and price analysis plays a role, and price realism is a component, as is suitability and maintainability. Frequently, validation of capabilities through either broad agency announcements, call for white papers, or market research followed by competition of a limited nature has the best results from a cost/price versus product quality, i.e. best value, determination.

I've heard the argument about buying a Jaguar when the Volkswagen is all you need to get there. True enough if the specification is to provide transportation to get from one point to another — then of course a bicycle can do as well, too. The point is that sometimes you need a Jaguar, and in those situations, you want firms that first and foremost can provide the Jaguar — the price comes later. The communication media doesn't alter that. Equally important is that the media doesn't empower the acquisition professional in any fashion. In fact, it has a tendency to overwhelm the user, given the rapidity of the data transfers setting a pace wherein a person can be more prone to circumvent steps. We ran into that in quite a few frontline actions, e.g., in Iraq and Katrina, and those should be considered great examples of how technology provided the environment for less-than-optimal decision-making and arrangements.

— Harlan Wax

Restricted Participation?

The idea is to enlarge the private participation. In fact, some of the restrictive practice will reduce participation while also increasing sampling when evaluating the requests for proposals.

— Srinidhi Boray

I don't think so. I think the 2.0 world will help increase competition and decrease cost. But this all depends on how it is handled. The No. 1 rule — what you do for one, you must do for all — will be the driving force. As long as everyone is on the same sheet of music and we still follow the same rules we do now when using the phone, fax, e-mail or — goodness — actually meeting face-to-face, 2.0 tools will be a huge help to us acquisition folks.

— Amanda Blount

After the Flood

2.0 is what is keeping us in business during the flood in Tennessee. Everyone is everywhere, and we are using BlackBerrys, Internet and texting to keep everyone in the loop. Without 2.0 tools, we would have to shut the doors. No contracts would be able to happen during this mass flooding.

I happened to be in Virginia when the floods hit, but I have my computer up and running. I am using my cell phone to talk and text (communicate) with my other co-workers, and using e-mail to send contract information back and forth. Our boss, who has been deployed to work the floods, is also using his BlackBerry to keep in contact with the office to make sure contracts are getting done. We had one employee who was physically cut off from work — the bridge was flooded — but her communications could still work, and she continued to work from home. We had another employee who was able to make it into the office and is actually putting everything together. These examples cover just a few of the employees. As the floodwaters go down, things are getting back to normal. But for a few days, Mother Nature thought she had our contracting office shut down. Ha! If we had to, we could have all jumped on Skype to have meetings and used free private groups already on the Internet to handle nonclassified projects. We are contracting; nothing shuts us down. If we have to, we can always go manual.

— Amanda Blount

Why Not?

The acquisition community is indeed overworked, understaffed and undergoing some loss of institutional knowledge. More active engagement with the private sector in the acquisition process — both contracting and program sides, particularly in the now very lengthy process leading up to final RFPs — would produce a dramatic improvement. I believe we'd see improvements in both the quality (more succinct requirements focused on the object) and timeliness of procurements. By engaging interested parties (dare I say crowdsourcing) once the objective is established, the process of brainstorming is enhanced by a mixture of experience and ideas that I believe is simply not present inside an organization — private or public. We end up with a much richer pool of information from which to define requirements, we've sped the process along, and the acquiring office retains complete control of the outcome. Why not?

— Gerald David

Keys to Success

I certainly agree with the proposition that "Acquisition 2.0 will give ethics officers the heebie-jeebies." Just about anything 2.0 will give lots of people, especially those concerned with risk and controllership, the heebie-jeebies. But I think that Acquisition 2.0 also gives opportunities to mitigate those risks and that the residual risk may be lower than what remains in more traditional acquisitions. The key elements are transparency, attribution and clear rules.

So long as we know who is allowed to contribute what (the rules) and who is contributing what (transparency and attribution), we can be sure that conflict of interest doesn't occur or is identified and dealt with if it does. And with an open, transparent system where competitors can be on the lookout for inappropriate private-sector involvement in decision-making, we stand a much greater chance of identification of conflict-of-interest situations.

That'll mean more work for the ethics officers until people get used to the fact they'll be found out, which may be a valid reason for another sort of heebie-jeebies on their part.

— David Tallan

Innovation Rules

My hope is that these initiatives will help improve the requirements development process, such that the correlation between increased competition and decreasing costs has a long-term lens. As Harlan stated, and to elaborate, cost should be the last and least determinant in a truly innovative competitive environment. However, that is not usually the case. Nonetheless, these initiatives focus on what is at the heart of these Acquisition 2.0 endeavors: innovation.

By being able to actively participate in the development of requirements, flushing out the objectives, and thus being able to increase competition, industry and the government can also actively participate in market research and communicate to ensure the government does not unnecessarily limit itself. Further, the hope is these techniques will lead to better solutions, better performance-based contracts and, ultimately, better outcomes.

These solutions may cost more in the short-term, which further validates what is in the best interest of the government (e.g. best value). But in the long term, these better, innovative solutions increase performance and thus allow for increased efficiencies and lowered costs.

— Jaime Gracia

Crooks Beware

I don’t think this is quite what gives ethics officers problems. The main problems with contacts are mostly from outside of work, where private friendships are cherished more than serving the citizens, and it becomes a rationale to short-cut the system. The fact that many contractors and lobbyists cultivate these friendships intentionally for business purposes and shortcuts are taken to expedite profits can be readily seen in the Gulf oil spill we are watching.

Enlarging public participation will create more transparency. In fact, the computer is creating more transparency, too. Beware to crooks! What is unknown today is found out tomorrow. Either technology gets better, more information comes into the system, or somebody discovers them accidentally.

— Al Fullbright

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