GSA tries wiki approach to develop RFPs

The General Services Administration wants public commment on requests for proposals, but blogger Steve Kelman wonders whether the public take the agency up on it.

GSA Administrator Martha Johnson announced yesterday that her agency will experiment with using wikis to help develop the requests for proposals (RFPs) on two new acquisitions.

The idea for this actually emerged from the dialogue on procurement innovations GSA has conducted (in cooperation with the National Academy of Public Administration) on the Web at a site called BetterBuy.  At the BetterBuy website, there is now a link presenting information on two acquisitions that are in the development stage -- one for hosting the Data.gov website and the other (unexplained and as yet not up at the site) for an acquisition called Clearpath. GSA is asking members of the public to provide advice for features and performance requirements for these applications, as well as other elements of the RFPs.  Specifically, GSA is asking for members of the public to point out mistakes and engage in "meaningful technical debate."

Given the endemic problems government has developing good requirements for IT acquisitions, the idea of drawing on the public for suggestions is in principle a great one.


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It will be interesting to see whether this works in practice, however. It is fitting that this effort is appearing just as Jim Williams is retiring as commissioner of the GSA Federal Acquisition Service,  since in the 1990s Jim (then at the IRS) coined the phrase "full and open communication" (a play on "full and open competition") to describe a policy (then somewhat revolutionary) of engaging industry more to get ideas and suggestions in advance about RFPs for upcoming procurements.

The kind of advice GSA is seeking from the general public is thus the kind of advice the government has solicited from potential bidders for a while. Asking for the advice to put out there for everyone to see, as GSA is doing, actually creates problems when done for potential bidders specifically, because companies are loathe to say anything meaningful for fear of revealing information about their bid strategies to competitors.

This shouldn't be an issue for the general public, but here the issue is how many members of the public -- beyond companies thinking of bidding on the contract, who already get to make suggestions without this new wiki --  are likely to have the knowledge or interest to become engaged in the arcana of requirements for a speific procurement.  A procurement related to Data.gov is a great choice for piloting this approach, since it's an application with a lot of general interest and excitement.  If meaningful public input can't be obtained on this one, it is hard to imagine that it could be obtained on many, or any, other procurements.

GSA is to be applauded for trying this. I hope to follow in the blog the fate of this effort and to see what happens.

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