INS scores points for innovative contracting techniques

During the next few years the success of efforts in information technology procurement reform and of achieving better returns on the government's IT investments will depend mostly on the actions of hundreds of career people in IT and contracting shops throughout federal agencies.

Much of the statutory and regulatory reform is in place. But changes in the rules can't by themselves summon forth creative ideas about better ways of doing business. Such ideas come only from the commitment and dedication to the public good of men and women in our federal work force. The federal IT community has already produced our share of heroes. I think of people on the front lines such as Manny DeVera and Gale Greenwald at the National Institutes of Health who pioneered governmentwide acquisition contracts (GWACs) and expanded vendor involvement in request-for-proposal development Bill Gormley at the General Services Administration who turned the GSA multiple-award schedules into an operation committed to fast delivery better prices and improved relations with vendors and John Ortego also from GSA (now with the Agriculture Department) who pioneered state-of-the-art focused governmentwide multiple-award task-order contracts for data center operations and seat management.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service just began evaluating proposals for a series of contracts to carry forward its smorgasbord of efforts to use IT to support the many components of INS' mission such as border inspection law enforcement against illegal immigrants and naturalization and customer assistance for legal immigrants.

The contracts constitute an overall effort called Service Technology Alliance Resources (Stars) and the contracting strategy INS is using deserves attention from the federal IT community. The Stars contracts will be of several types. Several contracts will be awarded to what INS is calling "performance contractors " who will compete to perform task orders to develop roll out or maintain and enhance the many individual applications - close to 40 in all - that INS has been is or will be developing. Another contract will be to a systems integrator.

The integrator will write no code nor will it develop any applications. Instead the integrator will be responsible for systems architecture and interface standards among applications for assisting INS in developing performance standards for the performance contractors' individual applications and for helping INS manage the task orders. Lastly INS will award an "independent validation and verification" contract to test and validate the work that has been performed.

The Stars contracts represent a big step forward in how the government thinks about multiple-award task order contracting. First INS will be getting a significant stable of vendor personnel devoted specifically to the project rather than cowboys riding the federal range in search of work under GWACs. I believe that over time the role of GWACs will become more modest - although it will not disappear - as more agencies conclude that one contracting method does not fit all situations.

Like INS agencies with a menu of loosely coupled but still mission-critical IT applications will prefer to hire a group of dedicated vendors - while still getting the turnaround time and competition benefits of multiple-award task order contracting - by signing their own agency-specific multiple-award contracts.

In areas where agencies have a large and relatively integrated development project such as the Tax Systems Modernization at the Internal Revenue Service they will probably want the benefits of a single team. Agency-specific multiple-award vehicles also will make it easier for niche firms including small businesses to play.

(Stars also has another feature in terms of small-business access that others could learn from: namely a requirement that large-business primes award a specific minimum percentage of the total dollar value of the business they receive to small-business subcontractors.)

Second use of an integration contractor who is separate from the vendors working on the specific applications shows an appreciation for the importance of architecture and interfaces even for loosely coupled applications. This is an issue that rightly has concerned a number of observers as task order and/or modular contracting become more common. Federal Acquisition Regulation coverage and the GSA guide on modular contracting remind agencies that these are important issues as government seeks to achieve the benefits of modular contracting.

Third Stars has taken a novel approach toward encouraging cooperation among the vendors it selects in an environment where at least the performance contractors will frequently be competing with each other for task orders. Such competition can be good but it also can create risks given that many of the applications developed by different vendors will need to be related to each other.

INS has established an "alliance incentive pool " which has a maximum of $500 000 every six months to be shared among vendors (actually according to the RFP mostly among vendor employees). The pool is given to vendors based in the judgment of the agency "on their cooperation as a team " with examples such as sharing information and avoiding finger-pointing.

The fewer the total number of vendors adjudged as cooperative the smaller the total pot which means that even vendors who are cooperative themselves will be penalized unless they can encourage the other vendors to be cooperative as well. I suspect that few outside observers would have identified INS as being at the cutting edge of federal IT. All the more reason to celebrate its new approaches.

Innovation and accomplishment need not be the exclusive province of the select few. Excellence lies within the reach of all of us if the dedication and commitment are there. Hats off to Dave Goldberg who runs the IT shop to John Russo who runs the contracting shop and to Soraya Correa who works for Goldberg for taking up the challenge of delivering better IT value to taxpayers.

If they keep at it they have a good shot at entering the ranks of heroes who are making positive change happen.—Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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