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Calling Agile Contractors: Come Show and Tell for 18F

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The Obama administration has ambitious plans to embed a full-scale digital-service team within each agency to help overhaul the way government delivers IT projects.

But the teams won’t do it alone.

Officials at the General Services Administration and its in-house digital shop 18F are now sending a message to the traditional contracting industry: We need your help, too.

That was the takeaway from Tuesday's joint GSA-18F industry day where officials and industry representatives mulled over plans for a new agile-only contracting vehicle that will eventually help agencies purchase services specifically from companies that specialize in quick-turnaround software deployments.

18F has been doing its part over the past year to help agencies revamp citizen-facing services. All told, the office has agreements with about 18 agencies to perform development and design work, officials said.

The relatively small shop -- its staff size currently hovers around 100 -- has faced “explosive” demand for its services and can’t keep up, said Greg Godbout, 18F’s executive director.

The agile blanket purchase agreement envisioned by GSA would eventually allow agencies access to vetted agile-certified services, including agile architecture and software, user-centered design, and DevOps.

But companies looking to get into the agile action will first have to prove themselves to GSA and 18F. The beginning stages of the procurement will include a 24-hour tech challenge during which companies will have to produce and turn over to GSA a lightweight software prototype for evaluation.

And at first, companies selected for awards will only be providing work directly to 18F to help with its slate of projects.

However, firms that ultimately earn the 18F agile seal of approval will get a chance to compete for governmentwide work by year’s end.

Here are the specifics of the agile BPA laid out at Tuesday’s industry day:

By the end of February, GSA will release a request for quote for the agile BPA. If you want to get specific, it will fall under the special-item number for professional services (SIN 132-51) under IT Schedule 70.  

GSA officials said they planned to release a draft solicitation this week to give contractors a preview.  

That RFQ will cover the “alpha phase of the project,” during which the BPA will only be open to 18F to use for assistance with its projects.

By April or May, GSA plans to award BPAs for the alpha phase to about 15 to 20 companies.

The 18F-only holding period allows the smaller team to kick the tires, so to speak.

"We're not going to go governmentwide and say, 'Hey, we think this is the best of the best,' before we've had a chance to use (the BPA) and sort of put our name to it,” said Noah Kunin, director of delivery architecture at 18F.  

An RFQ for the beta version -- covering governmentwide work -- will be released by September. Awards, again to about 15-20 vendors, are expected in December or January.

It's likely that companies that win awards under the alpha phase will "graduate" to the governmentwide level, Kunin said. But there's no guarantee, and companies will have to recompete for the work.

"We're not going to say that, 'Hey, you do one evaluation, now we're set for five years," Kunin said.

There will be periodic on-ramping and off-ramping of vendors, "based on simple and transparent performance metrics," according to one of the slides presented at the industry day.

Kunin said the "cadence" of those off-ramps -- quarterly, annually or some other period of time -- remains to be worked out.

Details of what exactly GSA and 18F are looking for from companies will be available in the RFQ later this month. But if contractors want to get a head start, they should look to the Digital Services Playbook, Kunin said.

The administration launched the playbook last August, coinciding with the creation of the U.S. Digital Service digital fix-it squad. The playbook contains a how-to guide for building effective digital services.

"If you look at the playbook . . . that pretty much mimics more or less the evaluation methodology we're going to be using when we look at the software” generated by companies during the 24-hour challenge, Kunin said.

The administration has made agile acquisition a key part of its strategy for delivering better digital services.

An increased focus on breaking up large IT projects into smaller pieces has allowed agencies to deliver functionality an average of 21 days faster since May 2013, according to details presented in the White House’s fiscal 2016 budget blueprint published this week. Projects that followed agile-development concepts were nearly as likely to deliver on time than those using the traditional “waterfall” development technique, according to the administration.

The ultimate goal of the new agile-only contracting vehicle is to continue driving improvements in the way the government develops and acquires technology, said Adam Neufeld, GSA chief of staff.

"For too long, we've been a one-trick pony when it comes to technology development,” he said Tuesday. “People sit in a room and write requirements; they throw it over the transom at some point ... Sometimes, it's a raging success and everyone's very, very happy. But other times, it's not. It becomes late. It goes over budget. The customers are unhappy. And that's not good for the government. It's not good for the taxpayer, and it's not good for industry as well."

(Image via joreks/Shutterstock.com)

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