18F Takes on 'Micropurchasing' Experiment

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The team is building an online system that could help federal agencies make "micropurchases" for software code.

The General Services Administration's tech consultancy team is experimenting with a new way for federal agencies to buy code. 

The team is building an online system that could help federal agencies make "micro-purchases" -- transactions for less than $3,500 made directly with the vendor -- for open source software code.

Since its inception in 2014, 18F has been uploading the code for its products on GitHub, a public, online repository, so citizens can examine the code and occasionally contribute to it. 

"But we want to show that opening our source code improves our ability to contract for digital services," 18F staffer V. David Zvenyach wrote in a blog post. "We also want to see whether this is a sustainable way to engage small businesses and non-traditional contractors in the government space."

The new CALC system, demonstrated on 18F's blog, would let agencies search the hourly rates for various tech positions such as a "senior consultant" with five to 10 years of experience. Starting Oct. 26, 18F plans to create a "micropurchase" tag on the GitHub repository for CALC, along with the coding criteria for bidders, who can negotiate the price for code down from $3,499.

The lowest bidder will have 10 days to meet the coding criteria, at which point the bidder will be paid, according to the blog post. And if they don't, the next lowest bidder has 10 days to try. 

This experiment builds on 18F's efforts to coax small and nontraditional contractors into selling tech services to the federal government. In August, for instance, the group awarded 16 firms a spot on the Agile Blanket Purchase Agreement, a contracting system that would let federal agencies buy tech services from several pre-approved vendors specializing in agile development. Though the first set of awards was made to companies already on GSA's Schedule 70, the group has said it plans to "on-ramp" new vendors.

Similarly, the first iteration of this new micropurchase experiment will only allow companies registered on SAM.gov, the federal System for Award Management. 

In the blog post, Zvenyach attempted to downplay expectations.

“It’s true; this might be a terrible idea," he wrote. "But at 18F, we're committed to experimentation, and we want to see what happens. Our hypothesis is that vendors can ship great code under the micro-purchase threshold, and we see opportunity to use procurement authority in new and productive ways. . . . If it works, that would be fantastic. If it doesn’t, it'll be an inexpensive experiment and we will have learned some new things."