How 18F aims to take the pain out of the government procurement process

The head of 18F, V. David Zvenyach, explains how his company works to make the government procurement process easier with modular contracting techniques, human-centered design and agile approaches to software development.

Recently, I interviewed V. David Zvenyach, 18F’s director of acquisition management, who is serving as interim executive director of 18F. Dave studied engineering undergrad, but then went to law school to become a “bureaucracy hacker.” Previously, he was the General Counsel to the Council of the District of Columbia. In 2014, he was honored to receive the D.C. Bar’s Exceptional Service Award for the establishment of the Council’s Pro Bono Program. Dave is an active D.C. Bar member, and a member of the Board of Directors of the DC Open Government Coalition. He was named a FastCase 50 winner and a Legal Rebel by the ABA Journal. 

Can you explain 18F’s mission?

Zvenyach: Our goal is to make acquisitions joyful. My interest is to rethink how we do procurements in the federal space, which has historically been a slow and painful process used only as a last resort to better serve their constituents. Ultimately, I would like to have a better community that is actually delighted to work with government. However, before this is possible, we have to answer one key question: How should we structure our acquisition team in order to enable a more joyful procurement experience? On the 18F team, we have contractors and managers, but we also have product developers and technologists. We also want to bring great vendors to the forefront.

What is it that you do? What products and services do you offer?

Zvenyach: To satisfy 18F’s need to buy, we invest in internal procurement. We have partnered with Federal Acquisition Service (FAS) to build their products using assisted acquisitions. To handle our larger and earlier projects and products, we do work with Agile BPA. 18F has had significant involvement with building tools such as a small business forecast tool, schedule 70 roadmap, and a micropurchase platform that have had monumental effects. Moreover, we are helping to create more broad government contract vehicles with great vendors who are working as quickly as possible. Lastly, we are attempting to help other government agencies to become more successful by participating in acquisition consulting, too.

Can you explain the Agile pre-qualified vendor (PQV) pool?

Zvenyach: Essentially, the Agile PQV allows us to get through the actual procurement cycle by establishing the necessary requirements and then only receiving qualified applicants in the industry. As a result, the only vendors you’re getting proposals from are those capable of doing the type of work you need. The PQV includes massive past performance and technical information in the form of PDFs and papers that tell you about company’s capabilities. Then the best match wins the contract. Initially, we weren’t sure if this would work out, but we had overwhelming submissions. It’s a simple way to capture what we’re after, and ultimately, we have great vendors who can work with the government because they’re capable of doing this type of work.

Is there a use case in which 18F has used a PQV?

Zvenyach: In just the state of California, there are 500,000 abused and neglected children, with only 20,000 social workers to work with a totally ornate system and SACWIS. To fix this gap, we need to modernize to meet CCWIS requirements. We partnered with HHS and California to see if we could rethink their procurement process. When a group of us went out there, we learned they had help from Code for America already. We took their big vision and broke it down into a series of modules and helped them package their first RFQs and get them out on the street. That was in November, and by December, they had open code being shipped, which is pretty cool. California established their own agile development pre-vendor pool to identify small and large companies that are capable of delivering high quality services.

How did you guys go from building web pages to agile procurement and ghost writing RFPs? What products and services are on the future road map? What is the future of 18F?

Zvenyach: The most important aspect of all of this is our delivery and service. We helped FED Ramp build a public facing dashboard where their cloud services are processed. Marketplace.fedramp.gov is a modern modular approach to acquisitions and can deliver sites in 60 days. User research helped define what went into this. We have contracts on the street related to products for the Department of Labor (collect info from employers); login-gov team (citizen facing services); solicitation that is related to the office of personnel management.

How do you engage with governments and industry?

Zvenyach: The most difficult thing we encounter is when we work with partnership agencies. A lot of times, agencies approach you with a really clear problem articulated well, but don’t know how to proceed to address that problem. We’ll dive deep with them by doing interviews, asking series of questions, and at the end of the procurement process, they can deliver the value and hear our concerns, as well. Because we’re feds, we can ask them candid questions, like whether or not their hypotheses have been validated, and then we can spend time with these partner agencies to work through the issue together.

For new entrants and companies looking to adapt to the agile procurement wave, what advice would you give to them? What would the advice be to industry seeking to adapt to this new way of procurement?

Zvenyach: I actually think that a lot of companies are not new to government. There have been massive entrepreneurial successes with delivering great products and value by straying away from the more traditional, yet painful way of doing the business. Companies have been adapting to respond to stated government needs, which is exactly what the government has been asking for. I would hope that this conversation would lead to more open dialogues. I want my vendors and my team to deliver value to customers, rather than just simply answering questions responding to proposals. With due diligence, we can accomplish competed contracts, good acquisition environs, and decrease inefficiencies. For people spending all of this time, we have to figure how to work together to make it more joyful for everyone in involved.

Although pie-in-the-sky, what is the future of agile procurement?

Zvenyach: Currently, the Clinger and Cohen Act established a modern CIO structure that drives a lot of IT decisions. There was an idea for modular contracting, but you cannot buy big bang procurements and improve its value simultaneously. That statute is running up against challenges like figuring out how to break massive contracts into smaller, more manageable chunks. Congress and GAO have talked about it. Dave Powner said that if you cannot deliver value to users within a year, you shouldn’t be funding it. In terms of the nitty-gritty details on the ground, we have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how you can match the idea of modular contracting with current regulatory structures. We need to answer questions like: What do we know we need right now? How do we buy that particular thing? If we use agile concepts, we may be able to deliver value through continuous testing and eventual deployment, and treat that same ethic in the contracting space and lead to continuous improvement that could be expected to become a part of day-to-day contracting.

What is your advice to government innovators seeking to get involved with the agile development process?

Zvenyach: It’s certainly a lot of effort and work. What we’re trying to do is empower people who have been working in the trenches, as well as clear obstacles and make sure they’re set up for success. At the end o the day, the industry wants to deliver meaningful projects and services. If you’re interested in the government space, but have previously dismissed working directly with the government as an option, I would recommend re-engaging. Don’t discount just how important the work we do is; [government] IT is some of the most meaningful work out there in this modern age. It is in fact true that procurement can be enjoyable.

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