By Steve Kelman

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Volunteering for government: The case of the $1 code

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Stories on federal IT seldom bring a smile to one's face, I think it's fair to say. So it is worth noting the story by Zach Noble that hit FCW's website late Monday afternoon: 18F hacked procurement and got code for $1. The tale it told did give me a warm smile -- some of the reactions from losing vendors were (unintentionally) humorous, and there is even a broader message for government in the whole thing. Tuesday the story was the second-most-viewed on the FCW.com site. So I am not the only one intrigued.

GSA was looking for an app to load multiple-award schedule data onto its existing Contract-Award Labor Category tool. The procurement was conducted by 18F, the General Services Administration's digital service consulting shop, as an experiment in using a reverse auction to buy software under the micropurchase threshold of $3,500.

As it turned out, the winning bid came in way, way lower than they were expecting: $1, to be specific -- the minimum price that the reverse auction allowed. The winner, Brendan Sodol, brought in his solution a few days ahead of schedule, and the software met all the acceptance tests. As icing on the cake, the software even included functionality above the government's requirement.

Why did Sodol bid only $1? FCW quoted him as saying: "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, Plus, I use open source technology on a daily basis, and saw this as a great opportunity to give back."

He noted that he was "lucky to have a great job at a startup," so he could afford to do the work without real compensation. "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."

The award drew critical reactions from some vendors. Those may be examples of procurement oldthink, or even sour grapes, from traditional government suppliers, but they could also be seen as -- perhaps unconsciously -- humorous.

One contractor complained the government should not accept a bid priced at below the minimum wage. (On a fixed-price contract, however, the government does not need to know about labor rates.) And in a contorted example of worst-case scenario thinking, another commenter argued that one bidder could enter $3,499 bid, a colluding bidder could place a $1 bid, and bidding would cease. The colluding $1 bidder would then deliberately fail to deliver, and the higher bidder would get the project at the maximum rate. (Why someone would violate federal law for a small contract, or whether the government would be obliged to accept the next-lowest bid rather than reopening the competition, were left unstated.)

As I said, I loved Noble's story, but I am also thinking about its larger significance. Last May I blogged about another piece on FCW.com, about the GSA hackathon that enlisted sizeable numbers of contractor personnel and others to work on another project, this time for a contest prize of a mere $1,000. (There has been at least one additional federal hackathon this fall.)

Sodol's observations, along with those of hackathon participants, show there are some people out there -- this is not a mass phenomenon, but clearly Sodol is not alone -- for people who want to help government, and are willing to volunteer, or work for token payment, to do so.

I believe the stories of such volunteers should be noted and celebrated. Noble found out about this through an 18F blog on the micropurchase reverse auction, which discussed the winning bid only in passing. The quotes from Sudol did not come from 18F, but from Noble's interview.

I believe agencies should -- without making too big a deal of it -- regularly publicize examples of where such volunteering takes place. This is a good message for citizens, to see not everyone is cynical about government.

And perhaps an even more-important audience in an agency's own employees, often embattled, whom I hope would be energized by the example of citizens such as Sudol. I also would urge good government groups, such as The Partnership for Public Service, to establish a feature on their home page disseminating such examples.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 12, 2015 at 10:35 AM


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