GSA’s agile RFI beginning of ‘systemic change’ in IT acquisition

By Jason Miller in Federal News Radio  January 9, 2015.

The General Services Administration is setting the table for a systemic change to IT projects.

GSA’s 18F and Integrated Technology Services have issued a request for information that would initiate a sea change to how the government contracts with vendors and buys technology.

“This is a great approach. It’s long overdue, simply because they are not looking for agile vendors, but they are looking for systemic agility,” said Raj Ananthanpillai, the CEO of InfoZen, which provides agile and dev/ops services to agencies, including NASA and the Homeland Security Department’s Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“Everything they do has to become agile. Look at the way they are trying to procure vendors. There is a short window of opportunity to respond, quickly get some vendors to bid and then pick the vendors you want to do business with, and then have them deliver something quick and make sure the ball keeps moving,” he said. “This is important because this is how agile development has always been done historically. They are even taking it one step further because their procurement process is agile now.”

The RFI is a precursor to a blanket purchase agreement that Schedule 70 vendors will be able to bid on. The BPA initially will be for GSA use only, but 18F and ITS say every agency eventually will be able to place orders against it. GSA says it would like to go from solicitation to contract kick-off in four weeks. Then in six to eight months, it would add more vendors and expand the BPA to the rest of the government.

GSA launched 18F in March as a way to bring outside technology experts into government to solve problems. Since then, 18F has grown quickly to more than 100 employees. It launched a consulting service in late 2014.

Nick Sinai, the former U.S. deputy chief technology officer and now Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, said in an email to Federal News Radio that the RFI is a big deal and a promising sign because it’s exactly what GSA should be doing.

“They are hitting on some of my favorite themes: show, don’t tell; iterate often and make it transparent,” he said.

Demonstrate agile skills

GSA says it plans to ask vendors who are bidding on the future BPA to provide a live or near-live demonstration of their capabilities, such as a 24-hour product development challenge.

“Doing it this way will not only help yield high-quality vendors, but also reduce how much ‘bid and proposal’ expense companies have to incur. Very little, if any, in the way of written responses will be required, as is typically the case,” GSA’s Chris Cairns and Greg Godbout wrote in a blog post.

Ananthanpillai said the approach GSA is taking with the RFI and potentially the BPA is becoming more common in both government and industry. He said NASA, CIS, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Patent and Trademark Office and the Defense Information Systems Agency are taking similar approaches to implementing agile development processes.

The Office of Management and Budget reported in January that agencies using agile development are delivering capabilities 20 days faster than those using the previous approach, commonly known as “waterfall.”

“You need a little bit of organizational shifting,” Ananthanpillai said. “In my opinion, there are three buckets of people in the federal government. If you tell them the concept of agile, they will say, ‘No way.’ Another one will say, ‘There is a chance this will work.’ And the third would be, ‘Let’s get started.’ So you have two-thirds of them in your camp, so you have to get as many as you can to get to the 80 percent rule. Eighty percent of the organization is behind this and you can start delivering things.”   ….

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