My Role 

Co-Founder and Manager. $1.5 Million investment from General Services Administration

CHALLENGE

Can we change buying behaviors of and the pace of buying in the Federal government? 

Solution

The first government-wide technology accelerator where we teach existing staff members to be better buyers of products: to become product managers instead of project managers. Participants apply their newly-found skills to products to "learn by doing".

The Problem to Solve

It is not news that the government isn’t the best at acquiring goods and services in an Agile way. The current status quo is large multi-year contracts, which may take up to two years to procure, which stifles responsiveness to user needs. Government acquisitions are governed by the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) that was "established for the codification and publication of uniform policies and procedures for acquisition by all executive agencies.” This process was designed for physical products such as pencils, pens, phones, but is NOT optimized for software products that rapidly change. 

The federal government spends more than $80 Billion on information technology purchases, but doesn’t always receive the full value’s worth of that money. Fortunately, there are a number of proven practices such as human-centered design and agile software development that can help close the gap. But how can agencies adapt their acquisition policies, processes, and team structures to take advantage of these new and promising ways of working?

Further, the way the government uses technology has changed, but the workforce, policies and procedures have not caught up with the speed of technology. There are four areas in particular that could be improved:

  • Information gaps: Information siloes amongst acquisitions and information technology (IT) teams exist at every agency. Teams don’t share knowledge and information seamlessly.
  • Acquisition workforce lacks the appropriate training to succeed: team is not equipped with modern-day approaches and requires help articulating needs, gaps, and problems.
  • IT status quo needs reform: Large multi-year contracts fail to move at the speed of technology with limited user input, which takes longer, costs more, delivering poor results
  • Desire for innovative partners: Companies with innovative approaches to solving government’s problems (i.e. startups, small businesses) find it difficult to navigate federal acquisition regulations, and as a result avoid engaging agencies.

Our Product

Announced in March 2016 by the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), the Digital Acquisition Accelerator is a pilot program aimed at helping agencies be better at buying digital services and creating digital products. It was funded by the General Services Administration, and was managed and delivered by the Presidential Innovation Fellows and 18F. 

By the end of program participants completed two digital acquisitions inside their organizations leveraging modern design and development techniques that resulted in delivering higher quality digital services for each product’s users and inspire a culture shift from legacy to modern-day digital acquisition practices. This involves moving from and to the following:

  • Internal stakeholder design to human-centered design (HCD)
  • Waterfall-based development approach to Lean and Agile approaches
  • Closed innovation to open innovation
  • Large, monolithic contracts to smaller, modular contracts

What They Learned

We designed the Accelerator program to help Federal government agencies institutionalize key principles and practices in the following areas:

1. Human-centered design

A creative approach to problem solving that starts with the people whom you’re designing for and evolves into a solution that is crafted to suit their needs.

2. Lean-Agile methodologies

An empirical approach to creating products that relies on short, frequent feedback loops, enabling you to make more timely and informed decisions about what features truly satisfy the needs of the business and users.

3. Open innovation

A paradigm shift from closed to open innovation that encourages idea sharing and collaboration between internal and external stakeholders, including members of the public.

4. Modular contracting

Increasing the likelihood of procurement success by breaking contracts into smaller, shorter-duration chunks of work to give you more immediate visibility into vendor performance.

Those who participate in this Accelerator program continue the cycle of learning within their agency by promoting the adoption of digital acquisition practices through teaching, coaching, and knowledge sharing.

How We Did It 

We provide agencies with the skills, knowledge, and tools they need to succeed with digital acquisitions. We do this by helping agencies establish their own internal group of experts by working together on two real-world acquisitions that deliver valuable, high-quality products that users love.

Expertise is created over a series of training sessions, facilitated workshops, and access to expert coaches through five main phases:

  1. Ignition. Basic training on human-centered design, lean-agile methodologies, open innovation, and modular contracting.
  2. Inception. Developing an effective product and project vision through techniques such as proto-personas, problem deconstruction, and user-story mapping.
  3. Procurement. Planning and executing a procurement plan in alignment with the product and project vision.
  4. Delivery. Applying modern practices when working with vendor(s) to produce a valuable, adaptable, and reliable product.
  5. Landing. Capturing the results, lessons learned, and stories that can be reused by other government agencies.

Key to our approach is a “learn by doing” model, which is why we ask agencies to nominate two acquisitions to go through the Accelerator. For the first acquisition, we provide structured guidance to help scope and procure the required services. For the second acquisition, teams execute it on their own using their new-found knowledge from the first acquisition. We’ll still be around to provide ongoing coaching throughout, of course, because it’s important to us that agencies not only learn, but succeed.

What we teach you draws on the latest experience and guidance from leading practitioners at organizations such as 18F, the U.S. Digital Service, and the Health and Human Services Buyer’s Club.

OUTCOMES

Success in these domains decreased the time to useful and usable product and increase the efficiency and effectiveness of digital acquisitions. We collected best practices and lessons learned which then can be applied to future digital products. These are additional outcomes that we found through the process:

  • High degree of cross-functional collaboration
  • Agile product management, as opposed to traditional project management
  • Involving key product stakeholders, including end users, throughout the process
  • Focus on evaluating vendors based on demonstrated capabilities
  • Statement of Objectives over Statements of Work