18F hacked procurement and got code for $1


In a bit of experimental procurement, the General Services Administration's 18F set out last month to use micro-purchase authority to buy code, careful to stay under the $3,500 government cap by holding a reverse auction that started at $3,499.

As it turned out, the winning bid came in way, way lower than they were expecting: $1.

The project, involving loading Schedule 70 data into GSA's Contract-Award Labor Category tool, was satisfactorily completed by one Brendan Sudol, who came in a few days ahead of schedule.

"We asked for labor category data from the Schedule 70 to be loaded into CALC," 18F's David Zvenyach explained in a Nov. 6 blog post. "Not only did Brendan Sudol meet the requirements of loading the data, the new code had 100 percent test coverage, an A grade from Code Climate, and included some new functionality to boot."

But why the $1 bid?

"I love reading about the innovation and impact that 18F, USDS and company are having in the government, and it's made me want to help contribute to the cause," Sudol told FCW. "Plus, I use open source technology on a daily basis, and saw this as a great opportunity to give back."

He noted that he's "lucky to have a great job at a startup," so he could afford to throw Uncle Sam a bone.

Not everyone was excited by the turn of events, however.

In the project's Github chatter, other bidders questioned the legality of Sudol's offer when they saw bids plummet from $1,250 to $1 in a single day. Was it even legal for feds to pay so far below minimum wage? They also questioned the bidding setup, because as it stands, it appears one bidder could log a $3,499 bid, a colluding bidder could log a $1 bid and bidding would cease. The colluding $1 bidder then just has to fail to deliver within the 10-day time limit, and the higher bidder would get the project at the maximum rate.

"[I]t's legit," Zvenyach told FCW, responding to the question about minimum wage. "It's a business not an individual, and the bid is not a labor rate."

Zvenyach did not directly address the collusion possibility, but indicated in his blog post that 18F was looking at tweaks to their system. (In the Github chatter during the experiment, Zvenyach asked bidders not to discuss pricing strategies.)

"In some respects, this result was the best possible outcome for the experiment," Zvenyach wrote. "It proved that some of our core assumptions about how it would work were wrong. But the experiment also validated the core concept that open-source micro-purchasing can work, and it's a thing we should try to do again."

Throughout the course of the experiment, Zvenyach said 18F saw 16 different bidders jump in on the action, including several woman-owned, minority-owned and service-disabled-veteran-owned small businesses.

Eight of the bidders, Sudol among them, registered on only after hearing of the experiment.

Sudol, who said he worked with his friend and colleague Andy Chosak to complete the work, noted that this was his first time working for the feds, and he was happy to do it dirt cheap.

"This is $1 more than I make from the other little web projects I like to work on in my free time," Sudol told FCW. "And this one actually is meaningful and helps the community."

About the Author

Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.


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