IT buying experiments preview 'Acquisition of the Future'

Today’s pockets of innovation give glimpses of the tomorrow’s buyers and marketplace.

Shutterstock image: illuminated crystal ball.

Acquisition of the Future is an initiative that seeks to frame a vision in which acquisition creates significant new value for the government through fresh approaches, modern technologies and a new generation’s capabilities.

Participants include a growing number of federal executives, industry leaders, notable academics and rising acquisition professionals who have been meeting since 2013 to create a framework for what federal acquisition can become, to meet the demands of the Collaboration Age -- and beyond.

Acquisition of the Future supporters are continuing their quest to find and capture real-world examples that uncover emerging trends. AOF leverages these initiatives to demonstrate the new value that vibrant, forward-focused federal acquisition can provide, and that model the strategic decision-making and investments required now to transform the future.

Especially in the realm of information technology, such experiments are emerging everywhere. That’s not surprising, because technology is one of the chief disruptors driving change and creating higher expectations in government, society, industry and our economy. Because IT is evolving so rapidly, government has difficulty acquiring, modernizing and maintaining it in a way that keeps pace with innovation and commercial best practices. And current government buying processes and culture make it difficult for agencies to keep apprised and take advantage of the pace of technological innovation. Consequently, IT is a hotbed of acquisition experimentation.

A common language

We have entered another of the perennial seasons of teeth-gnashing over government’s inability to buy quickly and creatively enough to capture both technology’s promise and the interest of a new generation accustomed to rapid technological change.

Predictably, calls for acquisition reform are also reaching a crescendo. Recommendations range from blowing up the Federal Acquisition Regulation to massive re-education of the procurement corps to raising technical competency in developing acquisition approaches.

Rather than joining that chorus, AOF offers a different perspective: Let’s stop trying to fix the current, antiquated system. Instead, let’s build in a new direction through common goals to create more value, modern technologies and business models, and a work environment that will draw talent to perform some of the most complex, important and impactful jobs in our country.

To support this undertaking, AOF features a free, open and sharable Transformation Framework and Guide.

The guide puts forth a much-needed common language describing stages of development and allows users to assess, plan, experiment, and share. Specifically, the AOF Transformation Guide describes, rather than prescribes, options across five levels of evolution in five critical dimensions:

  • Buyers (the acquiring team)
  • Culture
  • Acquisition Methods
  • Marketplace
  • External Forces

To help users focus on the most important activities of envisioning, experimenting and collaborating, the guide was designed to incorporate everything needed to enable application today. It takes account of evolving global and federal dynamics, new opportunities presented by this changed environment, a vision of alternative directions for federal acquisition, a menu of strategic choices that we can begin making now in order to make necessary changes, and a way to measure and share ideas and progress.

People across the federal community are beginning to use the guide as they plan and work toward their envisioned futures. And, because sharing examples of AOF-like initiatives already in development will help illuminate what the future might look like and successful ways to proceed, everyone is invited to capture their journey and findings in the soon-to-be-launched online AOF Transformation Collaboration Site.

Heightened expectations

The guide envisions a marketplace that employs open architecture and business practices and transparency to attract new companies and innovation to government. Interestingly, the Defense Information Systems Agency’s app store is an example of this new approach to the market. The initiative recognizes the opportunities created by Collaboration Age technology, demographics and connectivity. The store will allow users to download and use apps immediately -- even some they’d have to pay for on their personal devices.

Today, we all use smartphone apps for everything from banking and news to entertainment and health care. But it’s important to note that young people entering the military and federal workforce who grew up as digital natives expect to find the speed, simplicity and immediacy of apps where they serve and work. Constant connectivity offers all app users new ways to co-create, buy, find, meet and interact, and even enables service members in harm’s way to exchange views of the battlefield, enemy coordinates, intelligence and other data. Exposing commercial and military-developed apps in a marketplace allows users to vote with their downloads and comments on which apps are most useful, and to send clear, direct signals about what else they need.

In addition to the App Store, DISA is unveiling a new IT Storefront will allow users to securely buy IT as they would online: directly, easily and quickly. The user experience will be frictionless, and as with buying commodities in the consumer world, little procurement processing will be involved, so DISA will have created a marketplace with relatively little strain on the already-stretched contracting corps.

Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator Anne Rung and Federal Acquisition Service Commissioner Tom Sharpe are working together on initiatives to provide full-service strategic sourcing and category management capabilities. These efforts dovetail with the guide’s description of future buyers. Here, AOF anticipates a data-enabled team freed by vastly expanded strategic sourcing and category management to focus on mission outcomes, rather than just support and process. Rung leads the Strategic Sourcing Leadership Council, made up of the biggest-buying federal agencies, which has approved 10 "super categories" of commonly bought products and services -- including IT, transportation, travel and professional services -- for management in an effort to broaden strategic sourcing.

Managing these categories from a government-wide perspective is intended not only to drive lower prices by wielding greater demand, but also to apply prices-paid and usage data and eliminate duplicative contracts. Senior executives will manage categories that focus on price, buying trends, cost drivers, innovations and emerging companies and capabilities in their markets, according to Rung.

This aligns with the guide’s vision of future acquisition teams who are aware of market conditions, understand supplier capabilities and incentives, are immersed in their agency’s mission, and consider all the external forces shaping it. This vision of highly sophisticated buyers also includes fingertip access to clean, accurate, government-wide acquisition data already analyzed and visualized using artificial intelligence to support decision-making. It is encouraging to observe that OFPP and GSA already are working on making this future a reality.

Other instances of forward-leaning IT buying techniques abound. They include other app stores, like the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s Geoint app store and the one DOD is building for unmanned aerial vehicle ground control systems, as well as applications of 3D printing in medical, military and space programs.

Seeing tomorrow

Isolated experiments, of course, have come and gone for decades, while federal acquisition remains data-deprived, rule-bound, risk-averse, over-regulated and unable to consistently meet expectations for delivering new and expanded types of mission value.  But with a vision, a common language, a guide and a place to collaborate and share, today’s experiments have a real shot at evolving into what the acquisition community truly aspires to deliver.

So that brings us back to AOF, which offers a vision and framework that allows us to look beyond the opportunities of today and can knit together practical steps from imaginings about tomorrow. AOF provides a continuously adapting, annotatable guide that enables leaders to chart their course rather than impose static conditions on acquisition’s evolution. And most of all, AOF is being created by the people most knowledgeable and most affected by it: government acquisition professionals and stakeholders.

Soon the AOF Transformation Guide and Collaboration Site will be available for public view, comment, annotation and posting of examples and lessons learned on a website hosted by the non-profit American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council. If you’d like an early glimpse and to be notified of the launch date, sign up here.

It’s time to build the future of federal acquisition -- together.

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