There’s no question that federal contracting for technology services is finally achieving significant momentum toward innovations that are long overdue. To be clear: the acquisition techniques themselves are innovating in order to allow, in turn, for the end result of what the government receives to be technologically innovative. That’s a good thing. Nowhere in the federal government is more being done than at the Dept. of Homeland Security. At a recent AFCEA DHS conference and the industry day event for the Flexible Agile Support for the Homeland (FLASH) procurement, the DHS CIO and CPO both spoke passionately about their intent to truly advance the way the government procures the best technology and services available. What concerns me is a couple of the assumptions that seem to be baked into the new approach. Those assumptions, I’m afraid, put the goal of meaningful acquisition reform at risk.
Should the focus be on non-traditional contractors or non-traditional procurements? I think it’s the latter.
First, there is a sense that DHS believes “real” technological innovation is grown primarily in Silicon Valley with smaller outposts of innovation in places like Austin and Boston. In fact, DHS has gone so far as to set up a small office in Silicon Valley in order to support working with startups and bringing their ideas into the federal space. A NextGov interview posted recently outlines this thinking. The term “hand-holding” was used at the FLASH event to describe DHS working with startups having no federal contracting experience. As noted in the interview, DHS’ stated goal is to reach “non-traditional” contractors.
My question is: should the focus be on non-traditional contractors or non-traditional procurements? I think it’s the latter. “Traditional” contractors have grown to understand the way the government procures solutions. They have done things like obtained space in the DC area to make working face to face with their government customers, attending industry days, etc. doable. They have invested significantly in certification programs for security, process models, and quality systems which the government values and in some cases has required. They have trained their staff on security policies and annually (or more often) refresh that training. They have demonstrated enough interest in working with the government to jump through all the many [many, many, many…] hoops necessary to prime or subcontract on various acquisition vehicles from obtaining a GSA Schedule to joining a team for EAGLE II (only to see, in several cases, the government minimize use of those vehicles after all that investment, but that’s a topic for another day). Capabilities of “traditional” contractors like facility security clearance and classified clearance for personnel represent real “hurtles” as one of my colleagues puts it – there is pain for the organization in achieving these important capabilities which have represented (and I trust still represent) business value to the government.
I am reminded of watching football games in which my Pittsburgh Steelers are on the road. Invariably, the national broadcast team will comment on how well the Steelers’ fans travel based on the large number of black and gold clad people in the opposing team’s stands. What they fail to understand is that the number of fans who traveled to the game pales in comparison to the number who are Pittsburgh expatriates living in that town.
DHS seems to make a similarly false assumption that traditional contractors can’t provide innovative solutions. If they simply take off the handcuffs traditional contractors have to wear to follow all the regulations, we can deliver the same kind of innovations as Silicon Valley startups do. In fact, we already do so for our commercial clients. And best of all, we, unlike those startups, have already demonstrated a level of commitment to support the government that those startups have not. Indeed, one of the non-traditional contractors at the FLASH event stated during Q&A, “I’m not a federal contracting expert, and I don’t think you want me to be.” Well sure, who wants to be a federal contracting expert? None of us do. We’d rather be able to focus on the left side of the Agile Manifesto like those startups do. So my contention is that the focus ought to be on procurement reform that allows everyone to be innovative – not necessarily side-stepping all the important rules that govern acquisition – because those rules matter in the federal space, in fact they represent a form of business value from the government’s perspective. (Update: I was directed to this CNN piece that discusses the phenomenon of alumni of the current administration flocking to jobs in Silicon Valley. Coincidence? I don’t know….)
Oversight and quality assurance-oriented activities have business value for government organizations. Who is keeping track on behalf of the agency that this business value is being delivered? Do the product owners even realize this business value exists in their organization?
The second assumption troubling me is that engaging contractors, especially non-traditional ones, in a zealously agile paradigm means there is no longer a need for independent oversight that has been a hallmark of federal (and commercial) contracting for a long time. To be sure, oversight programs have in some cases been tied to waste and even abuse of tax dollars. However, independent oversight has also been [much more quietly] crucial to the success of many more programs. Some in the agile community have stated their belief that the agile process (usually referring to scrum) builds in quality and accountability. I’ve seen enough agile programs in operation to know that’s just not the way it is. No software development methodology obviates human nature. But even if it did, there is the important detail that agile’s focus is on the project – not the organization within which that project is executed.
Without independent oversight, the organization’s best interests are not necessarily being represented. After all, the federal government is fundamentally different from the private sector where agile has been so successful. Specifically, no matter what methodology is used to execute a project in the government, certain regulations, laws, policies, etc. are still required to be followed. These are not the kinds of things that often find their way into user stories – but that doesn’t make them optional. To reiterate a point made above, these oversight and quality assurance-oriented activities have business value for government organizations. Who is keeping track on behalf of the agency that this business value is being delivered? Do the product owners even realize this business value exists in their organization?
Product owners have a lot of responsibilities to track and decisions to make. Independent experts can provide an important umbrella over portfolios of projects as well as a safety net below them all in order to properly prioritize resources and requirements as well as offer a level of coordination that transcends projects. Having such independent experts infused into the agile process leads to faster identification and resolution of issues so that fewer iterations (sprints) are needed to nail down a given feature. To this end, it has been reassuring to see an agency like USCIS, one of the most progressively agile agencies in the government, acknowledging the value through contracts for quality assurance and independent test and evaluation alongside their development contracts. It’s not so surprising to read USCIS CIO Mark Schwartz’s new book to see some of these same themes – identifying business value (and acknowledging business value comes in many forms and depends on the stakeholders’ perspectives) and the use of the X-team concept. While independent review programs have not been announced in conjunction with FLASH, I hope to see the individual DHS components look for that kind of support for their own organizations as they leverage FLASH in the near future. And as this model succeeds and becomes the blueprint for the rest of the federal government, I hope to see the ongoing commitment to independent oversight contracts as part of what helps these innovative programs succeed in meeting users’ needs and protecting the interests of government organizations.