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.
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