An innovator at DHS

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Steve Kelman spotlights digital transformation expert Scott Simpson of the Procurement Innovation Lab at the Department of Homeland Security

I first learned about the Department of Homeland Security's Scott Simpson when he was introduced to me by Office of Federal Procurement Policy veteran Mat Blum, in response to a request to introduce me to outstanding young contracting professionals. Scott is 41 and has worked at DHS headquarters as “digital transformation lead,” part of the DHS Procurement Innovation Lab, which I have written about in the past, since 2019. Simpson is responsible for bringing the idea of oral presentations as part of the source selection process back to life.

Oral presentations were introduced as a feature of source selection in the 1997 rewrite of Part 15 of the Federal Acquisition Regulation. The basic idea was to move away from the traditional stilted presentation of materials for the government to use in choosing vendors with written questions from the government and written answers from vendors, and give the government more opportunities to learn about vendor capabilities by interacting with them face-to-face; the presentations gave the government valuable additional information about how knowledgeable vendors were and how good were their presentation skills. (This change occurred in tandem with a change in how negotiations were conducted after initial proposal evaluation between the government and vendor finalists. Previously, quote-unquote "negotiations" consisted of written communications back and forth with no real-time interaction between government and vendor, nothing like what most think about when they think of people negotiating.) 

The regulation recommended but did not require that the people appearing at the oral presentation should actually be the people who would do the work, though industry at the time made the case that the government couldn’t require this because it was impractical given scheduling issues inside firms.

However, although the idea of oral presentations was in the FAR and was used occasionally in government, it never really took off, and sort of languished (though it had been used at least once at the DHS Procurement Innovation Lab), until revived by Simpson many years later.

Simpson came to DHS right after graduating law school to work as a contracting officer in the Office of Procurement Operations, where he was first exposed to oral presentations. He states that “vendors had been asking me for years to have an oral presentation as part of the solicitation.” Although the traditional system gave vendors more control over what they told the government, there was, Simpson states,  a lot of vendor frustration at not being able to fully explain their approach and understanding. 

“A lot of times I heard this during a debrief where we were telling a vendor they received a weakness for XYZ and they responded, if we had an oral presentation we would have been better able to explain that," he said.

Simpson listened to what he heard from vendors, incorporating oral presentations into how he routinely gathered information from vendors and into the PIL “boot camp” material he used to train people about source selection.

When Simpson organized oral presentations, the competing vendor teams were given an acquisition scenario in advance. One scenario he used involved alarms going off on a platform being monitored, while at the same time, there was an uptick in traffic from a particular IP address that is not often used. The question is what the government should do next. The vendor presentations consisted of prepared remarks about their response to the scenario. Beyond the content of their remarks, Simpson said, “We could see during the presentations that some teams worked well together, while one had only one person who spoke.”

 Part two of the exercise was what Simpson called oral presentations “with a twist.” The “twist” was that at the presentation the teams were given a new scenario they only had an hour to prepare before making their presentations. The idea was to evaluate how vendors think on their feet and respond to real-world emergencies and high- stress situations.  ”During the twist we really got to see how they interacted,” Simpson says.  

Simpson wrote an account of how he had used oral presentations and then shared it in a Procurement Innovation Lab webinar. “It was after this that the PIL asked me to come on a detail, and I never left.”

 Simpson has with experience refined some of the details of his techniques for doing oral presentations. Originally, he brought the vendor teams in one after another, had his government team take notes during their presentations, and then had his team meet at the end to compare notes and make decisions about whom to choose. But he gradually realized that by the time they got to the end meeting, the government folks did not remember very well what they had heard much earlier. So he introduced what he calls “on the spot evaluations,” where the government team reaches a tentative judgment about how good a vendor is immediately after each vendor presentation, with a wrap-up meeting at the end to bring together notes from the earlier meetings.

Simpson is another example of one of the best aspects of our contracting system, and indeed of the career federal workforce more broadly – a person growing up in the grassroots who emerges through his own efforts to make a difference. He, and people like him, should be honored. And I would urge other procurement professionals to look at some of the specifics of what Simpson has done here to see what they might use in their own organizations.

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