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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

State of Procurement: Charting the Course for Innovation

FY 2020 was a year when, against all odds, we saw the currents of change produced in the PIL’s first five years swell with new challenges and opportunities.

September 11, 2001 has, as it has for so many, forever impacted my life. A life I am grateful to have, in our country that is land of the free and home of the brave. I vividly recall our first child’s baptism ceremony in Tribeca in the weeks following the attack on our nation. Tremendously impacted about the devastation all around us, we followed as our pastor paraded our sweet baby boy, Ethan, through the streets of New York, with the smoke from Ground Zero ever rising. Our son was held up as a symbol of hope in days when our strength and resilience were most tested. Along our route, others joined the procession in this march of hope and solidarity. We marched determined. Determined to come together, stand strong and ensure attacks on our homeland never happened again. For the lost that day and for those just born, we would never forget.

In the following years, my husband served in both Iraq and Afghanistan in support our nation’s efforts in the fight against terrorism. I am forever grateful that he returned home safe to us after both deployments and honor those he served with, including those who gave the ultimate sacrifice to safeguard Americans and our allies, our homeland and our values.

It was directly after my husband’s return from Afghanistan that I accepted my own call to serve, joining the Department of Homeland Security to serve as a Contract Specialist in the summer of 2010. The Department of Homeland Security was created out of the foundational commitment of Americans in the wake of the September 11 attacks to stand united against threats to our homeland and our values.

In the many years since the September 11 attacks, the department has steadfast maintained this vision as the complexity of the threat environment has continued to evolve. Standing behind the front lines are dedicated civil servants who work across mission-support offices, including the Office of the Chief Procurement Officer. Since January 2017, I have had the honor of supporting the department’s acquisition workforce and its mission through the work of the Procurement Innovation Lab. The Procurement Innovation Lab was stood up in March 2015 to provide a safe space for procurement teams to explore innovative strategies through actual acquisitions to provide faster delivery, better solutions and greater value to our important mission across DHS. As the department continues to evolve to face today’s threat environment, we need to ensure that our acquisition system is flexible, responsive and adaptive. The PIL is here to support.

FY 2020 was a year when, against all odds, we saw the currents of change produced in the PIL’s first five years swell with new challenges and opportunities. Recognizing the value of innovation, more DHS procurement teams caught the wave and explored new techniques. As a result, the number of procurement teams that entered the PIL increased by 117 percent compared to FY 2019. Additionally, the resiliency of the acquisition workforce was tested by a global health crisis. Our acquisition professionals demonstrated their flexibility and adaptability to ensure that the mission was met, while continuing to innovate how we buy through the virtualization of the procurement process.

The PIL does not endorse change for change’s sake. Innovation is promoted because it works. In FY 2020, PIL data was analyzed to ensure that the use of innovation techniques was backed by proven results. The measure of impact and scaling across the department found that acquisition processes that include innovative techniques produce strong results, save time and money, and decrease protests. Innovation has proven to be far less risky than it is perceived. Results (Figure 1) demonstrate that compliance and innovation go hand-in-hand to improve mission outcomes.

(Figure 1) Innovative approaches to procurement leveraged by DHS acquisition teams focus on four primary objectives: 1) lowering entry barriers; 2) encouraging competition; 3) shortening time to award; and 4) increasing successful outcomes. (The PIL Fiscal Year 2020 Yearbook)

One example in FY 2020 where innovation encouraged competition and increased successful outcomes comes from an acquisition team supporting the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s (CISA) National Cybersecurity Assessments and Technical Services (NCATS) division, which provides four types of cybersecurity assessments: Risk and Vulnerability Assessments, High Value Asset Assessments, Remote Penetration Tests, and Red Team Assessments.  To ensure long-term competition and broaden skill sets, CISA wanted to shift support for these assessments from federally funded research and development centers to industry. The team needed a procurement strategy that allowed vendors to demonstrate their ability to perform the work.

Using Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) procedures to issue multiple blanket purchase agreements (BPAs), the team used a two-phase paperless proposal process to see the vendors’ expertise in action. For Phase 1, six vendors submitted a 15-minute YouTube video describing staffing and experience related to NCATS four assessment types. All six vendors were advised to proceed to Phase 2, during which they participated in a live skills test simulating the NCATS mission at a custom-built Skills Lab. In a 30-minute briefing, vendors explained their methodology and highlighted critical vulnerabilities. The team used on-the-spot consensus, confidence ratings and streamlined documentation for both phases. The result: While intending to award only three BPAs to the most highly rated vendors, the government awarded five $145 million BPAs after grasping the different concepts in which each vendor excelled. Each BPA included on- and off-ramp procedures to allow the flexibility to add additional vendors during the life of the BPAs and remove non-competing or unsatisfactorily performing vendors. The BPAs help CISA protect DHS systems and allow other government agencies access to this critical mission support.

“As the department continues to evolve to face today’s threat environment, we need to ensure that our acquisition system is flexible, responsive and adaptive”

This story helps illustrate the reality that procurement innovation is rooted in the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). FY 2020 was a year in which innovation surged not only within DHS, but across the federal acquisition community. By advising and sharing our work with others, the PIL has helped turn the tides of procurement across the federal government. In FY 2020, the PIL invited agency Acquisition Innovation Advocates and procurement innovation lab leads to shadow PIL coaches as those agencies prepared to stand up acquisition innovation labs of their own. These labs now join a growing community of acquisition innovation labs supporting more and more federal acquisition professionals who feel empowered and encouraged to apply their innovative ideas to federal procurement. Also, as our partner agencies began developing their innovation frameworks, the PIL provided informal coaching to those agencies’ procurement teams to support the applied understanding of the PIL’s testing and sharing framework.

The PIL will continue to stand by our acquisition community as it tests the new ideas of tomorrow. As evidenced in FY 2020, by remaining flexible and adaptive, we can and will be ready to support new challenges and opportunities as our acquisition ecosystem and operational mission environments continue to evolve.

Polly Hall
Polly Hall is Executive Director of the Procurement Innovation Lab at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The PIL has had a profound influence on one of DHS’ most powerful internal forces for cultural change. That “safe space” seeks to transform the agency’s acquisition culture by allowing contracting officers to test new procurement models and take risks on innovative ideas. As part of her leadership role, Hall created boot camp-style workshops to train DHS employees on how to use the lab. She has also been a driving force behind many of the department’s other agile procurement efforts, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Grants Management Modernization program.

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