The sprint is over and companies that competed for a slot on 18F's Agile BPA are lauding what they hope will become a new standard for federal procurement.
In looking for companies to provide agile development services, the innovative arm of the General Services Administration opted for a 'show, don't tell' approach to the solicitation process. Rather than ask companies for reams of paper promising agile capabilities, 18F set up a proving ground: a two-week test sprint where the only real measurement of success was a working product.
"I certainly hope that this is a new way to do [procurements] going forward," said Joe Truppo, senior manager at Octo Consulting. "Instead of us delivering 40 pages saying what we could do, we actually got a chance to show them what we could do."
"We were pretty excited not to see a 100-page RFP with a bunch of extraneous requirements," said Bill Ogilvie, vice president of government sales at CivicActions, adding that the company is a fan of this approach. "Instead, it really seemed to drive toward what they wanted versus what they had to have because of the FAR."
Rather than issuing a complicated RFP with a long list of requirements, 18F guided vendors to the Digital Playbook created by the U.S. Digital Service — a set of "plays" intended to focus procurement and development on usability and customer experience.
18F developed the solicitation along FAR guidelines but wanted to keep the process as agile as the services they were looking to procure.
The BPA "is agile in a sense that these are agile delivery services but it is also agile in the sense that we are approaching the procurement process with an agile method," said David Zvenyach, 18F director of acquisition and management.
Zvenyach said the 18F team is currently combing through the submissions and expects to announce approximately 20 awards by late summer, early fall.
"They left enough flexibility in the vendors' hands by saying, 'here's data, do something with it — follow the playbook and start your engines,'" said Ogilvie.
"We were super excited — this is the kind of procurement we really would love to see," CivicActions CEO and co-founder Henry Poole agreed. "We don't have to have a whole crew of translators to take what we do and translate it into a whole other language … It doesn't require a team of $500-an-hour experts to come in and tell you how to do it."
Vendors like CivicActions and Octo Consulting are hoping procurements like this usher in a new era of government contracting — one based on a company's ability to produce rather than the size of its internal RFP shop.
This will likely be most disruptive for the large defense contractors, Sanghani said, as those companies have systematic processes for responding to traditional RFPs built into their business models.
Smaller contractors like CivicActions see this as an opportunity for companies to enter the federal space without having to stand up similar contract offices.
When starting out, "One of the biggest barriers for us was we didn't have a big bid proposal machine," Ogilvie said. "We didn't have the capability of going section-by-section and understanding what all these terms meant and how do you write toward that … There's just so much confusion in these large RFPs."
At the time, CivicActions hired a federal contracting specialist to help walk them through the process.
Even with that additional expertise, a few rounds of extensions during the solicitation process — and the added costs associated with that — left the team feeling uneasy.
"We were very confident in the team, very confident in the price and very confident in our capability to perform," Ogilvie said. "We were very unsure of what we were submitting because we just didn't have the experience."
CivicActions ultimately won the contract as a prime vendor but the experience left them a bit jaded.
"One of the prime barriers is just the overwhelming nature of those RFPs," Ogilvie said. "More times than not there's a feeling in the process that it's written a certain way — that maybe there's a foregone conclusion and we're not in on the secret."
The agile BPA sprint was a test case for this new kind of competition, which 18F hopes will eventually scale across government.
"I have no idea about what this looks like in two to three years," Zvenyach said, calling the solicitation an alpha pilot. "We want to buy digital services in a different way than we bought them before. We want the experience that we've had at 18F to scale beyond just building it internally."
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However, there are still some kinks to work out before they get there.
For Octo, much of the confusion centered on the submission policy, which included three separate pools — design, development and full stack — with an option to bid on one, two or all three.
"It was almost as if they wanted a company to have three different teams working on three different efforts and submit in to three different repositories," said Octo project manager Vinay Katari. "That was a little bit of a challenge for us … If they can make that a little more clear, it would go a long way."
Members of both companies also said they would have preferred the shorter sprint, as initially envisioned, rather than the extended timeline. Not only is a fast turnaround an integral part of agile development, but the hurry-up-and-wait atmosphere of the sprint caused staffing issues, as resources had to be diverted and people pulled off other projects to adjust.
The rest was just about presenting a polished, working product with room to iterate — proving they could deliver the goods.
"There is a demand, a thirst for getting the right vendor, somebody who can really do the job," Ogilvie said. "We're going to see a lot more of these where it's a 'show me' attitude," he predicted.
"I would definitely keep it," Truppo said of the process. "It was a great opportunity to really have vendors demonstrate their true capabilities instead of their ability to write."
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.