Failure is an option for GSA’s new 18F agile contract

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Jason Miller | June 18, 2015 12:37 pm

Failure is an option for the General Services Administration’s 18F.

It’s not optimal or the first option, but the cutting edge group of developers understand what is means to try something new without knowing if it will work in the end.

And that’s the approach 18F is taking with its new agile development blanket purchase agreement.

The organization and the Federal Acquisition Service’s Integrated Technology Services office released a much-anticipated request for proposals Wednesday for a new BPA for vendors to provide agile or Dev/Ops IT services. The RFP is open only to Schedule 70 contract holders, but it was made available to the general public through the GitHub site.


Chris Cairns, the director of 18F Consulting, said goal of the BPA is two-fold. The first it to give 18F some help as it can’t keep up with the demand by agencies for agile development services. The second is to begin to create a marketplace for agile development services.

“In a lot of cases when the government sets up these contract vehicles they don’t see them or treat them as a marketplace,” Cairns said. “We want to set this up in such as way up that we can foster some healthy competitive dynamics and have the ability to on-ramp and off-ramp vendors so we can make it reflect a little more like it works in the private sector.”

Bur 18F fully understands that the marketplace and BPA may not work, especially in what the organization is calling the alpha phase of the initiative. Under this first iteration, Cairns said only 18F can award task orders against the contract but in the beta phase, they office may open it up to the rest of the government.

“I really expect the alpha BPA will give us a lot of opportunity to learn as we try different things,” said Dave Zvenyach, the project lead for the new agile BPA. “At 18F, we enjoy the opportunity to evaluate the processes freshly and make sense of what works and what doesn’t work. What I would really hate to see in terms of the outcome is to have the BPA be like any other procurement in the federal government. We’re hoping that we can learn a lot of things in the alpha phase, refine a lot of practices, our processes and our tooling so that when we scale up beyond the alpha phase, it will be a new way of buying agile delivery services. The reason why I hesitate to give a specific date on the beta, I really want to spend ample time with the alpha, really trying to figure what works and what doesn’t work before we start jumping into the next phase. And frankly one of the things we say too, this may not work. We recognize at 18F that not everything is a good idea, not everything works out for the future. So we want to experiment, we want to try and if it fails, we want to fail fast.”

Not your typical approach to bids

GSA says it plans to award up to 25 contracts across three functional areas: a development pool, a design pool and a full stack pool, which includes everything in the first two stacks plus five others capabilities such as agile coach and digital performance analyst. The first two functional areas are set-aside for small businesses, while the third full stack pool is unrestricted. The BPA has a ceiling of $25 million over one base year with four one-year options.

18F will evaluate bidders using a best-value trade-off approach where technical approach and price are the main factors. Cairns said the approach 18F is using is far from typical.

Vendors will have to submit a 750 word description of their approach to agile, and a prototype using the public data described in the RFP.

18F wants vendors to use a dataset from the Food and Drug Administration’s openFDA data set and application programming language (API) to demonstrate its agile capabilities.

The vendor must show it followed the Digital Services Playbook by providing evidence as part of their bid.

“The hope is that it will be available by fall. There are a number of factors that can affect the specific timing, but that is our target,” Zvenyach said. “The prototype is a bit different. Usually we ask vendors to submit quotes. We ask for things like past performance. We ask for their teams. At 18F, we prioritize working software over just about anything else.”

Zvenyach said he believes the vendors proposing under the agile BPA should be able to meet the requirements of the prototype without too much trouble.

“Our message to vendors is to get in. For those vendors who want to do agile, this is your chance. We genuinely embrace this at 18F and a lot of agencies who want to say they want to do agile,” he said. “If you want to do agile development, if you want work with open source tools and if you want to work with a team that is sort on the cutting edge with these digital services, now is your time. If you want to look a fresh at the procurement space, we want to partner with you in that regard. For the vendor community standpoint, this is an opportunity to get out there and shine.”

Cairns said a lot of the task orders will be small and let 18F experiment with different agile approaches and contract types.

He also said because of the volume of work coming at 18F, many projects under the BPA will be for other agencies.

A recent Grant Thornton and Professional Services Council survey of federal CIOs found agile is taking hold in the government. The survey found 91 percent of the respondents said they are using agile, and 33 percent of them are using agile as the default methodology.


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