18F wants you to buy IT faster and cheaper

When it comes to buying digital tools, too many agencies are hung up on what they believe is not allowed.

Agile development By Kalakruthi shutterstock image ID: 516494164

When it comes to buying digital tools and services, agencies get too hung up on what they believe they're not allowed to do -- and it doesn't have to be that way.

That's the message of Mark Hopson, 18F's innovation specialist and "acquisition alchemist."

"I've never heard anyone say the acquisition process is fine," he said at an event hosted by Comptia. "I don't honestly know why it has so much consternation. It shouldn't be this hard."

The amount of time it takes for agencies to issue solicitations and the complexity people bring to their commercial IT purchases are, Hopson said, "unnecessary."

"If you're not getting solicitations out in less than three months, you might as well just start over," he said.

"There is enough empirical evidence on how acquisitions are done and how outsourcing is done… that you can divine a way to navigate safely," Hopson said, yet when he speaks with agencies, "most of my time is myth-busting" what is and isn't allowed under the Federal Acquisition Regulation.

"There is no single driver of the problem. It's a bunch of different things," he observed. "Part of it is a policy concern… [but] a lot of it's just this is the cultural norm. You get hired as a contracting officer, and you do things the way everyone around you is doing it, and that just kind of becomes what you are comfortable doing."

Another challenge, Hopson said, is the workforce itself, and specifically that "there's no real training" for this kind of digital acquisition. And where there is, much of the material is either outdated or "doesn't really touch on any of this," he said.

"A lot of the things you're looking for are already on [General Services Administration] schedule" or another contract vehicle, he pointed out. "Save yourself all of these transaction costs."

There are efforts underway to address these shortfalls. The U.S. Digital Service, for instance, has developed a training and certification program for contracting officers to cut time and cost in purchasing digital services. But for agencies stuck in outdated, legacy IT environments, Hopson said, "the harder thing is innovating around the outcomes."

"Let's do things like industry days and let's have these outreach sessions so you can actually understand what the marketplace looks like for the thing you're doing," he said. "Have that inform your solicitation, as opposed to just dusting off something from 10 years ago that was handed down… and do word replace and change the dates."