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Let's change the "I" in RFI from information to interaction

Shutterstock image (by Pressmaster):  drafting a construction plan. 

In a typical Request for Information, a government agency is testing the waters to see what solutions are out there to help solve a problem or better deliver on mission. While the RFI process allows for the exchange of basic criteria and capabilities, it often lacks the critical component that can help both government and industry determine whether a solution is the right fit – and that component is interaction.

To really get a sense of a person or a team, you need interaction. You must ask questions, understand their perspective and get to the heart of what the issue is. A 15-minute back-and-forth with a prospective client reveals much more than an exchange of paper.

More interaction is possible. Here are' three ways more interaction can drive a clearer understanding of objectives and outcomes, create more clarity on what the government will get from industry and, more importantly, get goals achieved.

Ditch the paper for prototypes

It is more exciting and interesting work (for us and our people) to develop functional prototypes or multi-stage contracts or use incentive prize tools and challenges. Prototypes have long been considered effective tools as they help to reveal insights into ideas and concepts, and also highlight problems to be solved.

Wouldn't it be more fun to approach our work that way instead of through a 500-page document? Greater use of demo-driven procurement approaches -- such as awarding contracts for prototypes that then are evaluated in a "bakeoff" to identify the best solution -- not only reduces risk, but increases the value delivered to the government. Through these different approaches, we in industry can respond differently to your RFPs, engage with you to bring more innovation and, in turn, value.

Through the prototype evaluation process, you can also see how the different teams think and approach a problem and if there is chemistry between your team and theirs. How your team works with the contract team can be more important than the results of the prototype.

This idea of prototyping is not just about the acquisition process. Prototyping can, and should, be used throughout a project's lifecycle so you can see how the project is progressing. Through prototypes, industry can demonstrate the ability to work over the long haul.

Let's talk. I mean really talk.

One way to create more valuable interaction and understanding of the goals and challenges of a particular project would be through industry learning sessions. We are not referring to the traditional industry day, but rather a session that pre-dates an RFI. An RFI does not simply communicate the landscape of the environment – what the challenges are today, where they see them going in the future, how human capital factors in, etc. Through a discussion session, the agency team and industry participants can hone in on what the objectives really are and what impediments may be in the way.

Industry can ask questions and understand what the agency is really looking for before responding to a formal proposal. Maybe these discussions would lead to some industry participants deciding it was a not a good fit for their capabilities and doesn't respond to the formal RFP – a decision that would save everyone time in the process. Or maybe these discussions would prompt the government teams to more clearly distill their objectives. Perhaps the discussion could lead to a provider coming up with an idea they want to test.

The possibilities of what a meaningful discussion could lead to are significant. A great deal of good could come from just having these conversations before the formal process is underway. So let's figure out a way to do it.

Challenge us. Seriously, we're up for it

One interesting new trend we've seen in how agencies are buying digital support is through code challenges. Agencies provide sample problem sets to solve. This type of challenge allows industry to show our stuff and engage our teams in creative problem solving while showing government what capabilities and skills of a prospective digital team really are. 

Some government agencies are doing the same type of challenge with open data sets. Agencies ask prospective service providers to build a product within a set period of time. This model allows the government to crowdsource innovation and enables agencies to see who can deliver versus who can just write a good proposal.

Challenge.gov has a whole host of ways government is trying to bring innovative solutions into government. This same type of approach could be used more often within the traditional industry community.

These prototypes, discussions and challenges are ways that government and industry can date each other. Too often, we instead engage in these "blind marriages." We don't really know each other, we are not sure we really understand each other, but we've got this contract so here we go. The more we can do before, during and after the contract to see what the chemistry, capabilities, objectives really are, the better government projects will be.

About the Authors

Dan Helfrich is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP and leads the Federal Government Services practice.

Kymm McCabe is a technology principal at Deloitte Digital.

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