To Modernize, Push for Smaller Procurements

Olivier Le Moal/

Sometimes baby steps make sense. 

The government is all about investing heavily in technologies like cloud and artificial intelligence. With these massive efforts come massive contracts, but is that necessarily the best way to innovate?  

Many modernization efforts have been lackluster because of the way procurements have been structured. Massive, multibillion-dollar contracts spanning years with the same vendor means the government has put all their eggs in one basket; this has led to issues with integrating and implementing these “innovative” procurements. These mammoth contracts open the doors to legal disputes, among other bottlenecks to implementation, illustrated best in the legal battle over the Defense Department’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure contract

Why Big Procurements Aren’t Always Better

Big contracts don’t set the government up for success. Agencies invest millions of dollars without the ability to test the vendor and the technology. Multiyear contracts allow few options for agile pivoting, in case something doesn’t work out and the mission needs to change directions. 

Smaller procurements are more flexible and agile, and they also allow for increased competition, which leads to better solutions that are more impactful for government agencies. In addition, when contracts are narrow at a smaller scale, it diminishes the risk of a vendor protesting, which stops the entire project and pulls you into court. Thoughtfully planning smaller procurements can save the protest headache that will suck time and money away from your mission into a wearying process with a side effect of unsavory headlines.  

Big contracts also can lead the government to vendor lock, which is problematic for a variety of reasons. When an agency is beholden to one vendor, system integration, maintenance, and future work become nearly impossible. (Big contracts can lead to vendor lock, which results in a lot of the IP struggles we see today.) 

Modernize One Step at a Time

The implementation of new technologies and processes requires iterating, testing and taking small steps to build up to larger-scale advancements. 

Rather than making a massive investment and putting pressure on acquisitions to get it right on the first try, smaller-scale contracts allow room for testing, failure, and growth. A small-scale contract can validate a technology: If it works, great—scale up! If it doesn’t, trying again with a different solution is easy, and no one has to testify to Congress.

Awarding smaller contracts that allow scaling up to a larger scope helps to de-risk modernization for the government.

Benefits of Awarding Multiphase Procurements

The government needs a relatively painless way to scale what works and drop what doesn’t—multiphase procurement gives them just that. 

To achieve the flexibility needed to test, revise and scale without having to write new procurements at the end of each phase, a multiphase procurement consists of one overarching procurement that includes phases to give the government agility to pivot faster. 

Multiphase procurement also gives a framework for scaling so the government doesn’t get stuck in the valley of death between piloting new concepts and implementing enterprise-level systems. It gives project stakeholders a voice throughout every step, from proof of concept to enterprisewide deployment, to ensure the final implementation best solves the challenges. 

Multiphase procurement allows contracts to be awarded in smaller increments, but why stop there? 

Award Multiple Vendors in Multiple Phases 

With multiphase procurement, the government is able to award to multiple vendors over a shorter period of time, rather than one vendor winning the whole contract, which encourages competition and allows the government to spend more time actually working with the technology, rather than evaluating the merit on paper. 

For example, a contract could choose to award five small contracts for the concept development phase, downselect two vendors to pilot a solution, and ultimately award the rest of the contract to one winner. This approach benefits agencies in a few ways: 

  1. It’s less risky. You’ve already seen the product in action in your environment.
  2. It lessens the chance of a protest, which will save time, money and a massive headache down the road. 

Awarding to multiple vendors actually increases the competition within your contract, saving time and money in the long run. The increased cost to award to multiple vendors in early phases pays for itself by ensuring the solution you get solves the problem and adds value to your mission.

When agencies can spend more time throughout the phases actually evaluating technology from multiple vendors, it is apparent much sooner what will work and what won’t—and contracts can be awarded accordingly. 

Think Big, Act Small 

If you’re in government and pushing for modernization, build flexible and scalable procurements. 

Innovation and modernization don’t always mean huge implementations of the newest tech. Thinking big, but acting small is the foundation that saves time and money and provides better outcomes. Just because an implementation is small, doesn’t mean the impact isn’t big. 

Riya Patel supports community engagement, business development and product innovation at Dcode. She previously worked at the Defense Innovation Board, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, and the intelligence community.