Tech solutions for the changing acquisition landscape

Evan McDonnell

Federal IT failures often happen when agencies force-fit commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) applications to meet government needs.  This is particularly true with the acquisition and contract writing systems in use throughout the federal government today.

A new class of technology allows individual government agencies to have affordable and flexible acquisition and contracting writing systems tailor-made to their unique needs. Agencies that want to capitalize on these advancements must adjust their approach to evaluating options. 

Before I can list the specific changes you need to make, some background is required on the underlying technology. 

The first computerized acquisition and contract writing systems were custom developed.  That’s because there was no other option.  Custom development is expensive and costly to maintain.  Entrepreneurs recognized this and introduced “off-the-shelf” acquisition systems.  The theory was great; rather than start from scratch, agencies could simply configure an existing application.  But the reality was very different.  Configuration was not so easy, leading to expensive software customization or agencies changing their work processes to fit the limitations of their software.  Agencies were not happy, but had no other choice.   

Today, forward-thinking companies have created flexible platforms for a next generation of federal acquisition and contract writing systems.  The components of these platforms are:

  •  Business Process Management (BPM) Platform – These new solutions offer a codeless development environment with drag-and-drop icons to create software functionality. Application users and designers communicate through flow diagrams that build program logic.  This leaves software engineers free to focus on new capabilities like social and mobile instead of writing specific application logic.
  •  Acquisition “Framework” – Implementation of these new systems starts from a framework with common acquisition process elements already in place.  This framework is a project accelerator, lowering implementation costs, shortening the go-live time, and increasing initial functionality.
  •  Native Mobile Clients – When the BPM platform is extended with native mobile clients, agencies can offer mobile acquisition process participation without ever investing in any mobile development.   
  •  Integrated Social Communication – Social media is becoming a common business tool.  Tying it directly to process events greatly increases its utility, which is a built-in capability with these types of platforms. 

If this type of solution is appealing, here are the most important steps to follow to ensure this new generation of solutions is included as part of your requests for information and requests for proposals  for a new acquisition and contract writing system:

  •  Ask for “COTS-based”, Not “COTS” – Limiting your search to just COTS products will exclude the new generation of systems.  These highly flexible solutions technically aren’t “off-the-shelf” – although the platforms they are built upon are.
  •  Rethink the Long Functionality Check List – COTS products are not flexible, so you need to test them for hundreds of specific capabilities.  New software products focus on flexibility, so you can add capabilities later with little cost or effort. Be sure to balance existing functionality with the ability to easily add or modify later.
  •  Evaluate and Score Architecture – With only COTS products, evaluating architecture was unnecessary since they were all proprietary.  But with new options built on open, flexible architectures, an explicit evaluation is necessary. 
  •  Require Demonstrations of Core Logic Changes – COTS vendors won’t demonstrate a core logic change during an evaluation because it’s complicated and would come with a large customization fee.  New architectures make rapid changes possible, so a demonstration of a core change is warranted to understand your options. 
  •  Require Scoping for an Incremental Build Out – Next generation systems built on BPM platforms can be extended for related functionality such as responding to a congressional inquiry on a specific procurement.  Be sure vendors state how they would meet such a request and what it would cost. 
  •  Require Native Mobile Clients and Social Communications – We’ve already seen specific “Cloud First”, “Shared First”, and “Future First” guidelines.  It won’t be long before “Mobile First” and “Social First” initiatives come out.  Get ahead of the wave by including evaluations for mobile and social technology. 
  •  Finally, evaluate end user license agreements from potential vendors early in the process. Restrictions may substantially increase the total cost of software ownership. Look for items like a requirement to purchase upgrades in order to stay on maintenance, ownership rights of any customizations you pay them to create, and other restrictions.


About the Author

Evan McDonnell is Appian’s vice president of solutions.

Cyber. Covered.

Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Tue, Dec 18, 2012

These BPM messages have been in the market for more than 10 years. They promise the magic of a solution that meets all of your needs with none of the pain. It is just another flavor of custom developed systems where you, the client, own all of the functional risk. When the regulation changes, you pay for the change. When your needs change, you pay for the changes. Nearly all of the BPM providers have vanished as a result of this reality. Look hard at all of the failed BPM implementations of large-scale systems before buying the BPM fantasy.

Tue, Nov 6, 2012 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

One of the key principles in leveraging these cores components, and the opportunities they afford procurement shops to transform themselves into real Acquisition Centers of Excellence, is to adopt real performance-based approaches to acquiring these next-generation contract technologies. One of the difficulties IT companies face is the insistence on customization like the author states, as opposed to organizations looking at ways to change the way an they do business to conform to best business practices, and leverage the COTS technologies in the first place. Focusing on outcomes and the desired results in a performance-based model, along with the principles and evaluation criteria in this article, would go a long way to helping IT companies innovate their solutions and help government really achieve the systems capabilities they need. These solutions would surely improve the dreadful state of outdated and low-functioning contract management technologies many organizations are currently using across government.

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