Automation is advancing in federal acquisition

IoT (a-image/ 

Federal agencies are evolving from leveraging rote robotic processing bots in their acquisition operations toward more complex artificial intelligence processes to inject even more efficiencies into contracting.

"We do have seeds of true AI sprouting" for federal acquisition applications, Omid Ghaffari-Tabrizi, director of the Acquisitions Centers of Excellence in the General Services Administration said during a Defense One June 3 virtual event on automation in acquisition.

While robotic process automation (RPA) bots that handle rote, repetitive chores and free up humans for other work are increasingly common, AI is more complicated, according to Ghaffari-Tabrizi.

GSA uses a bot to track, find and change Section 508 disability clauses in contracts to ensure compliance, and that work is more advanced than just rote processing he said. That review, he said, takes "some degree of intelligence," but the output is always reviewed by humans to ensure accuracy.

While RPA bots can be implemented relatively quickly based on automating established processes, AI takes more time and expertise because it forges new paths in processes and data, by finding new ways to traverse both, said Michelle McNellis, who is also a director of acquisitions at GSA.

GSA has been at the forefront of implanting bots, with dozens automatically performing repetitive electronic processes, such as automating the work associated with processing offers under the Federal Acquisition Service's Multiple Award Schedules as well as an invoice notification bot.

It's also using bots for its FASt Lane, eOffer and eMod processes, said Ghaffari-Tabrizi. FASt Lane is the agency's program to accelerate how IT contractors get new products onto its buying schedules, while eOffer/eMod allow vendors to submit modifications to their contracts.

Other federal agencies looking to harness similar RPA capabilities, said McNellis, should move deliberately, getting input from all agency operations, including finance, IT, acquisition and management. Legal issues and IT capabilities need to be addressed before moving ahead with either AI or RPA efforts, she said.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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