18F lends the contracting community a hand

Steve Kelman points to GSA's CALC tool as an example of what smart collaboration can accomplish.

team of attentive businesspeople

For the past nine months, government contracting officials have had an online tool that gives them quick access to fully burdened hourly rates for 48,000 labor categories from about 3,000 General Services Administration governmentwide professional services contracts. The hourly rates can also be filtered by subcategories such as education level and years of experience, and the app generates a bar graph showing the distribution of labor rates on different contracts for a given labor category.

The tool, called Contract Awarded Labor Category, is the result of an effort by civil servants at GSA's Region 10 in Seattle, which manages professional services contracts in areas such as environmental services, advertising and translation services. Since launching last May, the CALC site has attracted 18,000 unique visitors from most federal agencies and a number of vendors -- a significant number for such a specialized app.

With the tool, the government gains much greater visibility into the range of pricing for the same categories. Previously, contracting folks had to sift through paper files or check prices one contract at a time via GSA Advantage. Contracting employees now use CALC to help decide the contract holders from which to request bids on individual orders and to evaluate and/or negotiate once offers are received.

CALC grew out of an initiative by Kelly Bailey, a program manager for professional services contracts in GSA's Region 10. Years ago, his office had developed an internal app that captured data from individual contract prices and exported it to a database, but it was only available to contracting officials in Region 10. Bailey was interested in getting the tool expanded GSA-wide, but approval processes were complicated and slow. He then learned about 18F's work on the GSA Acquisition Gateway and other projects.

Bailey approached 18F in November 2014, and by January 2015, the two sides had already begun collaborating under the kind of interagency agreement 18F normally uses to finance its activities. In a conversation, Bailey expressed amazement at how fast 18F's internal approval processes were. The technical challenge was to scale up the ability to export contractor data into an app so it could become much more widely accessed.

Exposure to 18F widened Bailey's ambition. The developers "leapfrogged what we expected," he recalled. "My original idea was to give access to the whole GSA, but 18F suggested a web-based solution that could give access outside of GSA to the whole government. 18F likes to make projects very open. When we talked about that, a new vision for CALC opened up."

Bailey acted as product owner, approving prioritization of features and authorizing releases. 18F organized the technical development and the feedback sessions with potential users. Bailey said he has no complaints about the collaboration and no perceptions of arrogance from the young 18F employees.

The 18F point person was a young staffer named Nick Brethauer. Before coming to 18F in May 2014, Brethauer worked at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates more government transparency. He completed a master's degree in information management at the University of Maryland and worked in freelance design and consulting.

Why did he take the job at 18F? "I thought it was a fantastic opportunity to have a big, positive impact in services, to improve government for citizens as well as government employees," Brethauer said.

Working on the project with 18F also gave Bailey his first chance to practice agile development. "I didn't understand how agile was different from traditional project management, so I asked them what books I should read to make sure we were on the same page," he said.

In traditional development, everyone works from a large list of requirements and estimates of how long everything takes. Agile focuses on short sprints. Developers often avoid saying they will have all the features built by a certain time because agile stays open to feedback throughout the process. After one sprint, the developers reprioritize for the next sprint. They don't plan entire projects from start to finish.

Agile is attractive, Bailey told me, because it allows developers to make lots of changes based on user feedback as the project progresses. "It's hard for anyone to think of everything that needs to be done or every feature a user might want," he said. "Using agile, we came up with solutions I hadn't thought of. I thought I understood what users wanted, but we got more input from users as we went on instead of trying to get all the requirements at the start."

Bailey cited the development of CALC's icons as an example. "I would have never thought about that, but it came out of a collaborative session called design studio," he said. "Users kept asking if these were worldwide rates, if they were fully burdened, but they were not reading our 'About' page that had those answers. 18F uses a design studio to see how a function will look, and the icons came out of that."

As a result, the new app was not only scaled for governmentwide use but ended up with improved functionality, he added.

A lesson I draw from this is that 18F can be a vehicle for promoting change within federal IT.

CALC is still very much a work in progress. Of special relevance to the IT community, it includes the Mission-Oriented Business Integrated Services contract, but it doesn't yet include IT Schedule 70 or the major GSA governmentwide IT services contracts One Acquisition Solution for Integrated Services and Alliant. Schedule 70 will be added shortly, which will be very helpful. And both 18F and GSA's Region 10 are aware that adding the other vehicles is important.

The other limitation is that the prices on CALC are the ceiling prices in the contract award and do not show what the government actually paid, which often reflects discounts from the maximum prices on the contracts. Getting such data is a challenge for CALC, but there is talk of having GSA change the requirements for how contractors submit data to make prices-paid data possible. That is not just an issue for CALC but for contracting in general.

But even with those shortcomings, CALC is a great start. The contracting and IT communities should make it clear that they would like to take this tool to the next level.