A faster, better, cheaper way to do high-tech procurement?

Two federal innovators are applying their ideas to acquisition. And their target is small technology innovators.

U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel announced the new RFP-EZ initiative as part of the Obama administration’s larger digital strategy at TechCrunch’s Disrupt NYC 2012 event in May. With the broader strategy, the administration is embracing a more mobile environment in which the public can access government services anytime, anywhere and on any device.

RFP-EZ is an approach for getting companies’ ideas in front of agencies in the form of simplified requests for proposals. To help formulate RFP-EZ, the administration is seeking Presidential Innovation Fellows from the private sector, nonprofit organizations and academia to work with the Small Business Administration to brainstorm and then quickly build the platform.

In a recent speech, Park said RFP-EZ would open up a new market for small, innovative companies and their “low-cost, high-impact solutions.” As a result, agencies would have access to better and less expensive products and services, and high-growth start-ups would fuel much-needed job growth.

Officials still have to flesh out RFP-EZ, but so far, Park has described it as both a new process for purchases that fall below the simplified acquisition threshold of $150,000 and a marketplace filled with innovative high-growth companies.

Those companies would provide their solutions under a streamlined procurement process, avoiding the lengthy rules that are contrary to lightning-fast IT. To further advance the effort, VanRoekel said officials are working with the procurement community to create modular contracting guidance.

The federal procurement process is not set up to be speedy or conducive to innovation. Moreover, the complex rules, the long buying cycle and the unpredictability make federal procurement daunting to small IT firms, and many choose to stay away, said Thom Rubel, vice president of research at IDC Government Insights.

“Consequently, the feds miss out on a significant opportunity to take advantage of innovative solutions and potential cost savings,” Rubel added.

With RFP-EZ, officials “are basically trying to emulate what’s happening on the commercial side, where application and software developers aren’t hampered in their ability to collaborate and invest,” Rubel said. In his opinion, the initiative is worth a try.

The illusion of innovation?

Other experts question whether RFP-EZ is the right way to go about fixing the government’s IT procurement problems.

Peter Tuttle, vice president of Distributed Solutions, said a lot depends on how the initiative evolves. If it becomes a way for agencies to sidestep competition, it could hurt the small-business contractors to which the government has turned for fast and affordable innovative solutions.

Given those concerns, Tuttle said Park and VanRoekel are smart to consult with the procurement community early in the process.

However, Paul Brubaker, president of Silver Lining and former deputy CIO at the Defense Department, said RFP-EZ is not what the government needs.

“This strikes me as a cheap approach to give the illusion of something innovative,” Brubaker said. “I think it will be much worse than that.”

The initiative could end up speeding the proliferation of mobile apps that agency buyers can get fast and relatively inexpensively. But those apps could easily go the way of federal websites: They’ll grow in number to the point that many are unused, redundant and in need of culling. Meanwhile, thornier procurement problems would remain unaddressed.

Despite the potential influx of small innovative solutions, agencies will still have back offices filled with ancient systems tied together. And as Brubaker pointed out, the bulk of agencies don’t have massive public-facing missions.

“Consequently, commercial-type apps won’t make any difference to most agencies,” he said. “And most enterprise apps cost a heck of a lot more than $150,000 if you actually want them to work.”

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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