Imagine that: Government can learn a thing or two from industry

Michele Foster said she will never underestimate the value of talking with industry. At the Army, she worked with acquisition officials who believed that soldiers deserve cutting-edge technology and that industry knows what’s on the cutting edge. Those officials made a point of talking to vendors as early as possible whenever they were in the market for new ideas.

Looking for input before locking down a solicitation sounds sensible, but many government officials don't do it. Some are worried about missteps that could ruin a solicitation, and others are simply too busy.

However, when Foster left the Army in 2009, she brought its approach to industry engagement with her to the Veterans Affairs Department, where she is deputy director of the Office of Acquisition Operations' Technology Acquisition Center (TAC) in Eatontown, N.J.

Under Foster's guidance, VA now meets with companies and gives them crucial information on upcoming contracts through advanced planning briefings for industry (APBIs). Last year, her work won her a Public-Sector Partner of the Year award under the Greater Washington Government Contractor Awards program sponsored by the Fairfax County, Va., Chamber of Commerce, the Professional Services Council and Federal Computer Week sister publication Washington Technology.

As Americans, we always want the very best for our men and women in the armed forces. To get the very best, the only way you can do it is to talk to those out there who can deliver it to us.

I really give the credit to the senior leadership both at the [Army] Communications-Electronics Command and in Washington. They were forward-thinkers, and they saw the benefits to the department and to the warfighter in linking up with industry and developing those partnerships.

The idea [for APBIs] actually came from the Army. Many of us on staff here used to work for the Army Communications-Electronics Command in the acquisition center there. So we brought that philosophy of transparency and industry partnership with us when we jumped ship over to the VA.

That is something that seems quite new. We have companies come in that are interested in doing business with the VA, specifically IT because we buy IT goods and services here at the TAC. We invite them in, and it’s an annual event.

What we do is focus on topics of the day and what we’re thinking of as a department that would be of interest to them. We also give them our upcoming procurement opportunities so they can start thinking about which ones they might be interested in.

During one of our vendor visits, we had representatives of a new company come in. They weren’t really sure how the VA works, but they knew they wanted to get some VA business. During the course of our discussions, they mentioned that what they had heard about the VA was that we always picked the same people or we’ll pick our favorite vendor.

So we thought: If one person is thinking that, others might be thinking that. That became one of the topics of our APBI.

We actually had a source selection [demonstration] — I think about 45 minutes to an hour — walking the companies through how we here at the TAC conduct a source selection, from the development of the requirements through the solicitation and proposal evaluation and the award process. Everybody could see how it’s actually done.

Another thing was, for example, the 25-point implementation plan [for reforming federal IT management] that was put out at the end of December 2010. For our next APBI, cloud computing was highlighted and the cloud-first policy. We had our customer — the Office of Information and Technology — come and lay out the VA’s philosophy on the cloud-first policy and what they planned to do.

Any topics that we think are of interest, that the vendor community might find helpful, we’ll bring those up at those forums, as well as the upcoming contract opportunity. That’s really our APBI.

Getting everyone on board

In-house, there wasn’t a lot of convincing [of the value of APBIs] because most of us came from the Army and we had that philosophy.

For our customers — the requirements developers within the VA — this was definitely very new to them. Looking for the forecast of opportunities and doing it so early were new to them. And we’re still growing in that area and trying to force that planning function.

To their credit, once we explained what it was and how they could actually benefit and how the veteran could benefit, they got on board as well. In fact, we’ve had a cadre of Senior Executive Service members from the requirements developers represented and briefing [vendors] at each of those APBIs that we’ve had. My hat’s off to them.

[Requirements developers and program managers were hesitant about connecting with industry] I think because it was a new idea to them. I needed to explain it to them. They heard about the importance of the events certainly for industry as well as for them.

At APBIs, there are breaks where they can meet with vendors and learn about the latest and greatest out there. These are all very busy people. They may not have the time in their usual workday to get that feedback from industry. They found it helpful, and I think as a result, the APBIs that we did after that are a whole different thing now. Everyone is on board. They understand the importance to the agency.

Program managers will get good ideas from those in attendance [at APBIs] because we do question-and-answer sessions, and they'll get comments certainly.

It’s an opportunity to dispel any myths that might be out there. I gave you my example of picking the favorite contractor or talking about upcoming procurements. That’s important for program managers. They need to make sure their upcoming requirements are out there so industry knows that they’re coming. That will allow [companies] to send in proposals. You’ll get some great competition, and in these days of shrinking budgets, it helps.

If you’re tied to the mission and you really want the very best, you’re silly not to take advantage of the industrial base’s knowledge.

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