Last year, GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service, the National Academy of Public Administration, and the Industry Advisory Council teamed together to collaborate on ways of improving government procurement.
Now, the Better Buy Project has evolved again, and this time you can participate to help build a better government RFP.
Mary Davie is the Assistant Commissioners of GSA Federal Acquisition Service’s Office of Assisted Acquisition Services, and Chris Hamm is the Operations Director at the GSA Federal Acquisition Service’s Federal Systems Integration and Management Center.
Hamm explained how the project has evolved so far.
“The betterbuyproject.org Web site was a collaboration Web site between the three parties. Moving forward and actually doing the procurement, we’re doing things through GSA systems. So, we had to stand up a new application. Stand up a new processes and policies in order to tell people how to interact on this new media. So, we’re definitely broaching new ground here.”
The Better Buy Wiki Homepage looks a lot like Wikipedia. Hamm explained that this design stemmed from the Better Buy project Web site, where an idea about conducting market research and defining requirements in a public forum was proposed.
“We put all of the information, as we’re developing it, out in an open forum that anybody could log in, edit themselves, answer questions that we have. . . . If we have errors in it, they can go out and point out the errors. They can make changes to the documents. So, it’s completely open and fair to everyone. Then it’s our job to sit back and watch it evolve and then shape it to make sure that there aren’t things that are inappropriate on the wiki.”
He said he was kind of disappointed after the initial launch because there wasn’t instant interaction. This changed, however, after only a couple of days, mainly because it was a big change for industry, as well as government.
“It took them a couple of days to formulate their plans, create user names and register for the site. This week we’ve seen a tremendous amount of activity. We’ve got several thousand hits on most of the pages, and several hundred users that are now contributing. We’re in the process of reviewing the changes. Some are just editorial — cleaning up our language . . . And some of it is really providing real content. We hadn’t thought a lot about mobile devices. There’s two new sections now on . . . Working on mobile devices. . . . [There is] also more more detail on ClearPath and how it aligns with cloud computing and consolidating data centers. So, there’s definitely industry comment that’s going to shape what we’re eventually going to buy.”
Better Buy Project is unique in that it’s using crowdsourcing for procurement. Hamm explained that, outside of Better Buy, industry doesn’t really get all that much input until much later in the process.
“The way we do it today outside of Better Buy Project is, I’ll have a senior project manager — some technical expert who is really smart in a particular area or technology — and they’ll go talk to a bunch of people and write something in . . . word processing software. It will take them a couple of weeks, maybe a couple of months, and then when it’s ready, we start emailing it around to detract changes. Eventually, at the very end of it, we start talking to industry. There’s not a lot of back and forth with industry during that process.”
With Better Buy, Davies said, GSA is looking for upfront participation.
“[We are] looking at this to conduct some market research. We have an extensive background and questions section for each of these procurements where we are asking questions about how we can do what we currently do better — industry, come and give us your ideas, give us your solutions. . . . We were actually interested to see if industry would actually come and contribute, because, when you look at a traditional process today where you have and industry day and you get a big group of companies in a room together, the government typically stands up, gives its presentation on what we’re looking to accomplish and then asks if there’s any questions. Most of the time you don’t get anything.”
Davie said the lack of feedback in traditional forums often has to do with companies protecting proprietary information, or not wanting to expose themselves as ignorant about a particular subject. The Better Buy format is one way to get around this.
“The user names that are created don’t necessarily have to be tied to a company name, if you will. We do track all of the registrants for our own records management purposes, obviously, but they can come and they can comment and they can ask questions and help shape the requirements in a different way. By getting all of this information up front as we develop the solitictation, what we’re looking to do is get something that’s more well-defined and takes advantage of the latest technology solutions so that, when we put the acquisition out, we’ll end up with a better solution and better outcomes for government.”
The idea of doing this kind of work in a wiki was not met without initial resistance, however.
Hamm explained that the government, particularly when it comes to procurement, is supposed to be risk-adverse, meaning that it is supposed to be equal and fair to everybody.
“So, making changes to processes has to have that principle underlying the entire way. The first look from our lawyers and our contracting officers was one of a lot of doubt. We have to prove to them that what we’re doing follows all of the principles in the FAR and the underlying idea that we want to improve the requirement without giving anybody an advantage. So, it took several weeks in order to get people to buy off on what our plans would be. Also, the hiding of history and user registration so that the attribution from companies could be seen by the government, but not by other users — technically that took a couple of weeks. I think we’re at a point now where they’re still suspicious, but they’re willing to see out the experiment and see if it provides a significant difference from the way we would have done it otherwise.”