TechFAR, Digital Playbook get tentative thumbs up

The new tools are a first step, but critics still contend that federal acquisition rules are outdated when it comes to buying IT.

Shutterstock image: black and white image of the White House during the day.

The White House's new tools for agile-friendly acquisition are a first step, but critics still contend that federal rules are outdated when it comes to buying IT.

Federal and industry procurement officials welcomed the new acquisition support resources made available when the White House launched its long-promised U.S. Digital Service team, but some are already calling for the effort to be expanded and honed.

President Barack Obama on Aug. 11 unveiled a team of experts based inside the Office of Management and Budget that will work to improve IT procurement and agencies' efforts to design public-facing online services.

To back the effort, OMB also released a playbook of best practices and another document that offered a package of IT-centric Federal Acquisition Regulation tips.

The Digital Playbook, according to Federal CIO Steve VanRoekel, is essentially 13 ideas, or "plays," on how to ensure that customer and end-user needs are addressed in design and development, and that testing and delivery take place along efficient, predictable lines. The document includes checklists and sets of questions to guide IT acquisitions, and focuses on agile methodology to deliver iterations of a service early, with multiple testing periods and frequent revisions. It also urges agencies to "consider open source software solutions at all layers of the stack."

The stripped-down, IT-centric TechFAR dovetails with the guidance in the playbook, and specifically instructs feds on how the FAR supports use of agile in the technology procurement cycle using existing regulations.

Industry and federal procurement officials praised the documents as a good start and said that efforts to accelerate federal IT acquisition processes were becoming even more important as another round of budget uncertainty looms.

"We've reviewed and fully support the materials in the Digital Services Playbook and TechFAR," Mark Naggar, a procurement advisor for the Department of Health and Humans Service's Buyers Club initiative told FCW. "It will assist all IT service acquisition stakeholders, notably program managers and contracting professionals as the documents address both procurement and implementation."

The TechFAR and the playbook, said Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president, public sector, Information Technology Alliance for Public Sector, are "both good tools." He added, however, that the documents' emphasis on how to best navigate a sprawling set of acquisition rules is also ample evidence that legislative changes to the acquisition process are sorely needed.

Federal acquisition rules, even with the new TechFAR, are outdated when it comes to buying IT, Hodgkins said -- especially some of the regulations' vendor reporting requirements for costs, labor and other categories. He argued the FAR is "overburdened" with rules drafted decades ago that might not make sense in the 21st century.

Hodgkins suggested that the TechFAR concept be expanded to include pertinent ways to buy commercial IT items. More readily available products, he said, could become even more important in the face of tighter federal IT budgets by offering a quicker, more efficient path for IT managers than the standard acquisition process. The Department of Defense, Hodgkins said, had a Commercial Item Acquisition rulebook that has been withdrawn and is probably outdated. Resurrecting that publication for wider federal use might be a next step, he suggested.

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