White House Wants to Build Digital-Savvy Contracting Corps

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The new team will be modeled on the U.S. Digital Service, but will be staffed by existing agency contracting officers who undergo specialized training.

The Obama administration is building a special squad of digital-savvy contracting officers to help agencies procure technology more effectively.

The new team will be modeled on the U.S. Digital Service, a similar effort to get more technologists into the ranks of government but will be staffed by existing agency contracting officers who undergo specialized training, Anne Rung, the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing this week.

Agency contracting offices often write exhaustively detailed statements of work that are often hundreds of pages long -- and ask the same of companies when they submit proposals, Rung said.

“What we'd like to move to through this new team is thinking about more succinct statement of objectives, thinking about having industry submit short concept papers and really trying to approach these acquisitions in a more modular manner,” she said.

Last month, Rung’s office, along with USDS and the Office of Management and Budget, announced a prize competition for the best program to teach federal contracting officers about more flexible ways of purchasing IT and digital services, including agile software development. Officials are seeking proposals through June 23.

Once a training program is settled on, Rung said her team will begin identifying and selecting career contracting officers to undergo the training and then join the new corps.

Rung said her office is thinking agile even in the way it plans to build the new digital procurement corps.  

"The way I'm approaching it is thinking about our efforts like a startup company,” she said. At first, only a small selection of contracting officers will undergo the new training.

“I want to send them back to the agencies to provide that hands-on assistance,” she said. “But most likely, I'm going to tweak that, and I want to scale it up over time. And I think what the Digital Service team has shown is that a small group of people can have a huge impact in this area.”

Rung said former White House Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, who now works to recruit talent for USDS, encouraged her to think about the “acquisition equivalent” to the White House’s tech fixers.

The new digital team is a separate, though related, effort to embed within agencies teams of acquisition cadres who are more generally focused on technology, as mandated by the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act. The Obama administration first called on agencies in 2011 to build “specialized IT acquisition cadres"; however, only about half of the largest civilian federal agencies have actually done so.

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