Bots Can be Your Friend

It’s been just about a year since Dr. Michael Wooten, the Policy Administrator for the Office of Federal Procurement, disclosed his plan to remove friction from the acquisition process. His intention is to rely on robotics process automation (RPA) as well as a few additional concepts to lessen the burden on contracting officers. (Federal News Network, October 12, 2020)

One way Wooten plans to do this is through the reduction of procurement administration lead time. Wooten recently spoke at the ACT-IAC Acquisition Excellence conference and said, “We look to accelerate the use of facilitated requirements development workshops, known as SAWS. We should enhance the requirements development process with the same technologies used to finish my sentences when I send texts or emails. This is no pie-in-the-sky vision. The technology exists today. In fact, the Department of Interior is piloting this approach. Under one of its contracts, a contractor supporting the Department of Interior applies natural language processing and machine learning tools to coach Interior’s acquisition community through the acquisition process. These artificial intelligence tools collect data to identify training needs. These data support management decisions to support better performance through training or process improvements.” (ibid)

When purchasing anything from help desk services to a fighter jet, AI and natural language processing tools pull clauses and requirements, which are applicable, by scanning previous contracts. The next step hopefully finds the manager performing minor tweaks to the language because most of the language has been used previously. GSA has been using these facilitated requirement development workshops (SAWS) since 2015 for BPAs and DoD has used SAWS since 2012 for service acquisitions over $1 billion. (ibid)

The acquisition community is taking a hard look at automation. RPA has been applied to the procurement process by the IRS, the Army, and GSA. Wooten feels RPA will improve compliance and ultimately become routine. He said, “these process automation tools can take on the ‘flow-chartable’ tasks. These tools will execute program decisions. In this fashion, automation can enable a compliance system that enables greater speed and accuracy. As process automation tools take on program decisions, they free people to make non-program decisions. They free people to exercise critical thinking and professional judgment. They empower people to create solutions.”

IRS has two programs under the Pilot IRS initiative:

  • Contract Clause Review:  a tool allowing a procurement document to be uploaded while answering questions about the document. Within seconds a compliance report is generated. Missing characters, text, and incompleteness is checked while at the same time syncing to the FAR, the Treasury Acquisition regulations, and the IRS acquisition policies. The tool is expected to have a large Return on Investment.
  • Contractor responsibility determination will automatically, prior to contract award, verify a company is eligible to do business with the government. Instead of a manual process, a bot will search databases, sending a report back to the employee within five minutes.

The Army launched another form of automation, a bot to retrieve information from SAM.gov and FAPIS.gov and summarize the information in a formatted template. Air Force and Navy should be utilizing the bot in fiscal 2021. Liz Chirico, the acquisition innovation lead in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for procurement said, “our team is looking into a couple of other interesting intelligent automation ideas. We are looking at automating some of the manual lookup processes for pricing so going to some of the public-facing pricing sites like GSA’s CALC and the Bureau of Labor and Statistics are two examples. We are also looking into streamlining the acquisition requirements process. That process often takes a lot of time and requires duplicative information, so if there is any way for us to streamline that and have all of the requirements stated upfront and have those templates and forms prepopulated.” Bots will probably also be used to ensure compliance with Section 889, prohibition of Chinese made telecommunications products. (ibid)

The IRS and the Army are using automation tools to move quickly through the procurement process and it’s likely the rest of the federal agencies are not far behind.

Questions concerning an upcoming bid and your company approvals through RPA or other automation processes? Give us a call.

Government Contracting Automation?

Recent survey results of federal acquisition senior procurement executives and chief acquisition officers provide a window into the world of government procurement and what should occur over the next few years, according to Kraig Conrad CEO of the National Contract Management Association (NCMA), who conducted the survey. (Federal News Network, January 7, 2020)

According to NCMA, the three major findings from the survey are:

  • The role of the contracting officer is changing
  • The business of contracting is changing.
  • The workforce is changing.

The survey found that respondents are looking to shorten the procurement cycle while giving the Contracting Officer the ability to be less restricted and able to focus on providing solutions as opposed to getting mired in the routine administrative tasks. According to Conrad, the acquisition professional should see their role as a solution maker and not a compliance “police” officer, which ultimately limits the Contracting Officer’s impact. (ibid)

One element that threads itself through all of the findings is the need for top cover from agency executives to allow contracting officers as well as program managers the leeway and freedom to try different things and bring new ideas to the table. Conrad gives the example of the Air Force pitch days, in which 51 contracts were awarded to companies that have little or no experience with the military. The service doled out $3.5 million to those small businesses on a Wednesday — each in 15 minutes or less. The first installments of the companies’ contracts were in their bank accounts almost immediately. (ibid)

Conrad noted, “we heard from a lot of our senior procurement executives that in an environment where they feel they have top cover, the risk aversion conversation is easier to overcome. Otherwise, you will go right back to the same old model where everyone is trying to protect themselves. That top cover really only comes when someone in a leadership structure is not afraid to get in trouble. You run into situations where the senior leadership doesn’t feel they are covered or protected. It will take leaders stepping out and leaning over these challenges to be able to open challenges for their workforce.” (ibid)

Another area of impact on federal acquisition is technology. The survey white paper states “Several senior leaders even described a future in which an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules and regulations will be devalued as artificial intelligence further automates their application to acquisitions or incorporates regulatory provisions and requirements into contracting app algorithms.” (ibid)

According to Conrad, “we need to get better at how we train into the workforce. Those that have data science understanding need to tell a really good story with data. How are the contracting officers the solution makers? That really comes down to competency. What is those balance of skills that will allow someone to be competent as a business leader in this function? That is one of the areas, because of technology advances, that the technical components will soon be outweighed by the software skill needs.” Conrad feels the “softer skills” include a baseline knowledge of the actual problem/mission, products, and their related markets. (ibid)

Most senior leaders interviewed expect a shift from tactical to strategic work as technology is used for repetitive or routine tasks. It’s expected that many administrative tasks, for example, contract modifications, will become fully automated. Some senior leaders look to AI to further automate regulatory provisions and requirements into contracting app algorithms. (ibid)

Conrad expects to meet with federal acquisition leaders to discuss the survey results and begin the process of changing the role of the contracting officer.

Wondering if this will affect how you work with a Contracting Officer? Give us a call.

 

Wanna Connect a Hybrid Cloud?

The Department of Defense (DoD) wants a hybrid cloud environment to serve as the cornerstone for department-wide use of artificial intelligence. The Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) issued two sources sought notices from all business that can provide system engineering and integration “to support the procurement, implementation, and operation of a hybrid and multi-cloud deployable development and production platform for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML) solutions.” (Fedscoop, November 25, 2019)

This hybrid cloud environment will form the basis of the Joint Common Foundation (JCF), a DoD/Government  AI/ML development platform, containing Data, Tools, and Processes. JCF will include shared data, reusable tools, frameworks, and standards. Additionally, it will include cloud and edge services to develop, secure, test and evaluate, deliver, and sustain capabilities. “The JCF will incorporate the architecture and software artifacts of the Enterprise Development, Security and Operations (DevSecOps) initiative and evolve toward enabling the DoD Artificial Intelligence Strategy.” (ibid)

Proposed vendors answer specific questions about past experience integrating multiple cloud providers at scale with continuous development and integration while meeting security compliance standards. A solicitation conference will be held in early 2020, followed by a request for quotation, and award by the end of September 2020.

The award of JCF will move swiftly. Give us a call if we can answer any questions or assist with your proposal efforts.

FOIA FOIA FOIA

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests keep growing. A lot. In order to keep up, the Chief FOIA Officers Council’s technology subcommittee recommends adding commercial, FOIA, and records management software to GSA’s Schedule program. (Federal News Network, August 2019)

According to Michael Sarich, the Veterans Health Administrations’ FOIA director and subcommittee co-chair, functionality and pricing for similar off-the-shelf FOIA software varies a great deal. He believes agencies may be experiencing difficulty implementing technological improvements in large part due to the exhaustive number of systems available. Eric Stein, director of the State Department’s Office of Information Programs and the subcommittee’s other co-chair, said the subcommittee’s final report will review ways agencies can standardize redaction and case processing tools. (ibid)

The subcommittee views their recommendations as the first step for greater adoption of artificial intelligence tools. They expect these tools will become a “force multiplier” and allow the FOIA workforce to reduce case backlog requests. (ibid)

With over 800,000 FOIA requests in fiscal 2018 and only 4,500 FOIA officers to manage the requests, each FOIA officer holds responsibility for 200 FOIA requests per year. On top of that, FOIA fees cover only 1 percent of the half-billion dollars that agencies spent in 2016 processing FOIA requests, and the number of requests increases each year. (ibid)

The Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy continues to work on new FOIA guidance, as well. A June Supreme Court decision redefines the scope of information available under FOIA. Most important to private industry is the financial data piece: financial data shared with the government will not be subject to FOIA requests under the new guidelines. (ibid)

Trying to figure out exactly what the government can share from your recent bid? Give us a call.

HHS is buying smarter

Over the past 18 months, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has been developing the Buy Smarter Initiative. The production phase has ended, and with it a new name: “Reimagined Buy Smarter.” Reimagined Buy Smarter uses artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze vast amounts of data, comparing prices along with other money saving plans. (Federal News Network, May 17, 2019)

Last year, 97,000 contracts were fed into an AI solution. Algorithms and a proof of concept of 10 product categories demonstrated significant price differentials on the same items. For instance, the same case of copy paper was $27 a case in one instance and $59 in another. (ibid)

DHHS wants requirements operating across all divisions in order to use of economies of scale. Through the development process, they have found that many departments order the same items, but from different contracts at pricing all over the map and duplication of efforts. With Reimagined Buy Smarter, DHHS  departments can consolidate requirements, utilize economies of scale, and eliminate unnecessary contracts. (ibid)

They plan to introduce 18 steps of technology for buyers.  The program has a $49 million multi-award Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contract for a catalog of new and emerging technologies. DHHS hopes “to get a very large number of vendors who can provide services that can be shared/scaled across HHS and ultimately the entire government.” (ibid)

DHHS created the new contract due to older contracts being so outdated. The Program Support Center for DHHS receives many requests for new technologies, but by the time the contracts are awarded, they are already obsolete. Additionally, contracting officers have spent a lot of time cutting and pasting from a “paper” system, which will be answered by a pre-populating process automation. (ibid)

Findings suggest the following categories of spending:

  • Medical and lab supplies
  • Software licenses
  • Professional services (ibid)

Workgroups are forming to address consolidating contracts for shared opportunities, eliminating overlapping or unnecessary contracts, and taking advantage of economies of scale. (ibid)

Interested in discussing Reimagined Buy Smarter? Give us a call at (301) 913-5000.