Three years ago, Mark Schwartz felt like a hostage of the procurement process.
Long lead times and even longer award periods often led to vendor lock-in and poor performance, if not outright project failure.
"We're, in a way, at the mercy of our contractors because they know it would be a huge effort for us to recompete their contracts — they know we'd have to invest a lot of resources and it would take a lot of time," the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services CIO said. "Whereas if we could compete contracts really quickly, then we would have less incentive to maintain a relationship that's not working that well."
As Schwartz started moving his agency toward more agile IT development methods, he wanted a contracting structure that could support the speed and flexibility of the products those vendors were meant to produce.
The first attempt at this is USCIS's Flexible Agile Development Services (FADS) contract, a unique approach that involves shorter contract terms and rolling competitions.
The vehicle started in September 2014 with four contractors, each with two software development teams. Six months in, USCIS reassessed each team's performance and decided whether to add more teams from that contractor, decrease their participation or keep it the same.
After that first reevaluation round, two contractors were increased to four teams, one to three and the fourth stayed at two. As FADS nears the one-year mark, Schwartz's shop is getting ready for another evaluation round, ultimately planning to have up to 20 development teams working directly with USCIS employees.
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"We came from a world where we had big systems integration contracts for big long-term programs and we found that that wasn't working very well for us," Schwartz said. "It didn't feel like there was enough of a competitive incentive for a contractor who was awarded a big vehicle like that."
By reassessing vendors' work at regular intervals, the FADS contract has that incentive built in.
"We figured this way the contractors have to keep making sure they keep us happy and look good compared to the other contractors," Schwartz said.
While the approach might seem daunting to contractors, Schwartz said they were able to balance that by providing explicit performance metrics for the evaluations, so vendors knew exactly what to do to maintain and increase their share of the contract.
Among those metrics is a mandate to work with the other vendors — sharing ideas and supporting each other's work.
"So we wound up with a sort of 'coopetition' situation where we had contractors who wanted to show us how great they were but couldn't do it at the expense of other contractors," such as pointing fingers or only jumping on the easiest assignments, Schwartz explained.
The result was a unique situation where contractors were volunteering to help each other.
The other major result is vastly improved software delivery for USCIS, which has fully adopted the agile development model. The agency went from issuing a new capability every couple of years to every quarter. As FADS has kicked into high gear, every quarter has become every week.
In the near future, Schwartz said he hopes to be releasing new apps and software updates every day.
Schwartz and the USCIS contracting team were able to do all this while staying well within the Federal Acquisition Regulation.
"It took a lot of creativity but what I found with the FAR is that once you understand it — and understand the ideas behind it — it's not so hard to work those ideas into what you're doing," he said. "The FAR requires that we have requirements for the competition … but that doesn't mean system requirements."
Instead, the FADS solicitation focused on what USCIS really wanted: agile software development.
The RFP asked for "higher level requirements," such as agile development skills, experience with certain technologies and the ability to work in a collaborative environment.
"All that went into the requirements for the [RFP] but not the exact system requirements for what they were going to be developing," Schwartz said. Those requirements were issued based on the projects those teams ended up working on.
"We're not just looking for someone who can parrot what was in our solicitation or someone who can copy-and-paste from Wikipedia — I want things that actually show a depth of understanding," he said.
FADS has shown some early success but at two and a half years from concept to award, the process still took too long for Schwartz.
Looking ahead, he wants to shorten the procurement window drastically and has issued a challenge to his staff to develop a solicitation lifecycle that can be completed — start to finish — in 30 days.
"At this point, nobody thinks it can be done," Schwartz said. "But I'm pretty sure it can with some changes to how we do things."
Right now, the idea is to create modular contracting language for scopes of work that can be mixed and matched to develop RFPs on the fly. If done correctly, vendors can respond in a timely manner, participate in a one- or two-day challenge to qualify, awards can be issued and the exact requirements fleshed out during the project phase.
Schwartz said he hopes to see some pilots for this approach before the end of the fiscal year.
"There's a lot we can do with the FAR exactly as it is right now but it does take some breaking out of the patterns we've been using in the past," he said.
Aaron Boyd is an awarding-winning journalist currently serving as editor of Federal Times — a Washington, D.C. institution covering federal workforce and contracting for more than 50 years — and Fifth Domain — a news and information hub focused on cybersecurity and cyberwar from a civilian, military and international perspective.