IRS Moves to Speed Up Contracting Through New Procurement Research Partnership

Konstantin Faraktinov/

Data-management, machine learning and acquisition expertise will be combined in this collaboration.

The Internal Revenue Service recently set sights on introducing new technology-driven capabilities and applying innovative data science techniques to improve and elevate its procurement operations.

And last week, the agency launched a research partnership valued at almost $1 million that marks a deliberate move in that direction.

Through the newly unveiled collaboration, agency officials, university professors and students equipped with procurement and machine learning experience, and members of Virginia-based small business Data and Analytic Solutions will form a multidisciplinary team intended to accelerate the IRS’ contracting and award processes. It emerges as federal buying largely remains notoriously slow.

“When it comes to contracting, everyone seems to want it faster, cheaper, and better,” IRS Chief Procurement Officer Shanna Webbers told Nextgov over email Tuesday. “We recognized that we cannot continue to do business as usual and expect a different result.”

With that view top of mind, Webbers’ office earlier this year embarked on what she called “a game-changing transformation” that drew from feedback shared by procurement employees within the agency, as well as its customers and industry partners. Building on that, the organization is bringing forth new tools and techniques—like data analysis, visualization, and machine learning, among others—to advance how work is performed. 

“The goals are to identify opportunities for better buying power, inform our acquisition planning efforts, identify and monitor metrics for success, and optimize the use of technology to improve our internal processes,” Webbers explained.

For this new partnership, IRS followed category management contracting principles and issued a task order against Data and Analytic Solutions’ General Services Administration 8(a) STARS contract. The small business set-aside governmentwide acquisition contract offers federal agencies customized information technology-centered solutions from a broad pool of pre-selected partners. 

The work’s period of performance spans from Sept. 2020 to Sept. 2021, and the contract is a firm-fixed-price in the amount of $800,000, Webbers confirmed.

Researchers from the company will be engaged in the effort—and though academic institutions are not party to the contract, at least two university professors are already involved. University of North Texas’ Associate Professor Timothy Hawkins will provide procurement expertise, and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Associate Professor Peter Aiken will share expertise in data management. IRS procurement and data analysts will also be involved throughout the year-long endeavor.

To Webbers, connecting career civil servants with top thinkers from industry and academia to solve some of the office’s complex challenges holds promise to produce next-level results, “as each brings a unique perspective and distinct ideas that, when combined, can yield powerful outcomes,” she said. 

The IRS' Office of the Chief Procurement Officer helps Treasury Department employees purchase needed items from outside vendors that span the nation. A press release from the agency that briefly details this collaboration said the overall intent is “to enable federal agencies to buy mission-critical services at a speed similar to the private sector's contracting process.”

The lead time needed to finalize a new contract procurement was recently standardized by nascent regulations, the agency noted, which has subsequently resulted in what it called “the largest-ever dataset on timeframes for federal contract awards.” Tapping into those new insights, researchers will examine close to half a million contracts, in hopes to pinpoint ways in which the process can be improved.

And over the summer, an intern that was in Webbers' procurement-focused office, through the Coding it Forward Civic Digital Fellowship, developed a machine learning model that the CPO said “predicts when contracts would be awarded.”

“One goal of the contract with DAS is to increase the accuracy of the model through advanced techniques, which might include additional consideration of the right variables impacting contract award or the addition of more training data,” she noted. “With improvements, the model could assist with advanced procurement planning.”

As the work unfolds, the agency also intends to help train contracting officials on how to best operate and to cultivate a talent pipeline of data-skilled acquisition professionals.

“At the end of fiscal year 2019, the IRS anticipated up to 31 percent of its workforce could retire within five years, causing knowledge and experience gaps,” Webbers explained. 

So, throughout fiscal 2020, her office hosted internships, hired additional staff members, and instituted a new group within the organization to specifically hone in on professional development, to help address that possibility of forthcoming retirements.

“As part of our commitment to professional development, we want to ensure our staff has the knowledge, skills and abilities to effectively perform their duties in the future by promoting data literacy,” Webbers said. “These investments underscore our belief that the workforce plays a critical role in meeting the agency’s mission and improving operations.”