(HSToday photo)

Fun, Fear and Contracts: A Q&A with DHS Chief Procurement Officer Soraya Correa

Before keynoting the recent GTSC capacity-building event, DHS Chief Procurement Officer Soraya Correa sat down with Homeland Security Today. In a wide-ranging interview, she talked about communication with industry and how protests can be helpful. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

HSToday: Let’s begin by talking about the changes that you’ve made to the contracting process at DHS to get innovation into the department.

Correa: So it’s not really changes to the contracting process as much as focusing on giving folks the opportunity to try new things, to try new approaches, new techniques to how we conduct our business.

Back in January 2015 when I started [as DHS chief procurement officer] – having been a contracting officer for most of my career and having come up through the ranks – I knew that there were better ways to do this and there were smarter ways to do things.

The key is, it does involve a little bit of risk-taking. And, unfortunately, we don’t always reward folks when they take risks, especially when they take risks that may not succeed 100 percent. We tend to be very critical of that. So what I tried to do was come in and …. remind people that it’s OK to take risks, that the missions that we serve merit some level of [risk], and that as long as we think through what those risks are and develop mitigation strategies, we should be able to try some things.

Procurement Is a Team Sport

So I stood up what’s called the Procurement Innovation Lab with the goal to invite [our procurement staff] in to bring us their ideas of how they want to engage in a particular strategy: Whether it’s an evaluation technique or a change in a business process or even a change in how they’re engaging with industry or their customers. We have a team of experts that look at those ideas. Think them through and … make sure that there were no violations to the acquisition regulations, make sure that we don’t have any concerns with how they’re going to execute that idea, and make sure that they’re pulling the right team together.

(DHS photo)

Because procurement is really a team sport. There are the requirements folks, the people who have to develop [that description of what you need], you have the legal counsel, you have the contracting officer or contract specialists. And depending on how extensive or how complex the procurement you may have people from the chief financial officer’s office or elsewhere. So, let’s pull that team together and let’s talk through what you’re trying to do. Let’s talk about how we would execute and then we let the contracting officer go out and execute that particular action. And the members of my Procurement Innovation Lab follow that action to make sure that we’re gathering lessons learned, but also to make sure that it stays on the right track.

And then if we have to course-correct, we try to course correct as we go along. But the idea is let people try new things. So we’ve been very successful with the Procurement Innovation Lab – it’s been [used] across DHS.

We’re trying a lot of different new techniques, also teaching other agencies how to do this, how to stand up Procurement Innovation Labs and even try out some of the techniques that we have [used]. And these aren’t really new techniques.

New Techniques: Oral Proposals

I’ll give you some examples of techniques that have existed all along, but were just underutilized: Engaging in oral proposals, having a contractor come in and present the proposal orally instead of writing reams of paper. They come in and talk to us and we engage in conversation with them and we better understand what they’re proposing. We had an opportunity to talk to their team and we get an opportunity to ask follow-up questions.

And here’s the advantage of doing things like this: It gives them greater confidence in the selection that they’re making. When you’re reading written materials, you don’t necessarily know if that is theory or reality. When you’re sitting across from someone, looking them in the eye, having the opportunity to have a discussion, you gain a degree of confidence, you gain a degree of understanding. You can tell when somebody really knows their craft and when they don’t. So what we’re finding is that the program officials find that [a] far better [way of doing business] because they’re engaging, they’re understanding, they’re seeing the team potentially that they’re going to be working with. And it gives them confidence [in the judgments they’re making].

New Techniques: Consensus Evaluations and Challenges

And then the other thing we do is consensus evaluations. We have the entire evaluation panel in the room and they reach a consensus evaluation right away instead of trying to do individual evaluations, write reports and then come into a room and vote. That really speeds the process up.

Another thing we’re doing is that if you’re buying this … product, test the product, run challenges. One of the things that we’ve done in the Procurement Innovation Lab quite successfully is technical challenges, where we bring the vendor in and we tell them in the solicitation you’re going to come in, we’re going to give you a set amount of time. And here’s the problem you’re going to solve for me, in front of me. And then you’re going to come in and tell me how you did it and we’re gonna ask a few questions. You get away and we’ll evaluate how well it really works because you get to see them apply their techniques. You get to see how that product will actually work.

So, again, it instills confidence and it’s fun. It’s fun. It’s a lot more fun seeing [the contractors] actually make the sausage, rather than reading about how they say they make the sausage.

HSToday: It’s not often you hear the word ‘fun’ used about procurement.

Correa: But it’s about creative people; it’s about fun. It’s about bringing teams together, collaborating to get the right answers as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Because, again, the mission that we serve requires us to turn it around right. We’re dealing with real issues and real threats. And so we’ve got to get solutions on the table as quickly and as effectively as possible.

HSToday: Speed to use, speed to execution is one of the challenges you have. Talk to me about that.

Correa: So there are several challenges. First of all, I think that those of us who live in the procurement world have to deal with staffing. You’ve got to have the right people to get the job done. And not only do you have to have the right people, but they have to have the right attitude to get the job done. They have to understand their craft and be able to work with their customers, to develop these solicitations, to identify these requirements to engage with industry, to learn from the industry. What’s the art of the possible out there? What technologies exist or what technologies are being invented?

Intern Programs: Growing Your Own Workforce

The other thing that you have to have is the ability to retain those people and keep them trained and up to speed. And that’s not easy to do when budgets are dropping and also with the competition that you have in the D.C. area. You have a lot of competition with the private sector and with other federal agencies – we’re constantly competing with one another.

So all of us, especially the major agencies, we have intern programs so that we can bring people in and train them and develop them. At DHS, we have a three-year intern program we call the Acquisition Professionals Career Program. And this is developing our workforce now. What typically happens is, once they graduate, they go work for one of our components and if we’re really lucky they’ll keep working in the department for different components.

The idea is let’s start growing some of our own talent because you just can’t keep poaching out [from other agencies or companies]. And obviously you run the risk that sometimes they go to industry and sometimes they come back, which is a great thing too. Or they go to other agencies – I’m someone who’s moved around in her career, so I value that. But it is extremely important to have the right people because it is the people that get the job done at the end of the day. We can talk about automation and all those things, all those tools that we can put in their hands to help them do the job better. But you still need people to make this happen.

It’s really smart, hard-working contracting officers and contract specialists that we need to join forces with our program officials, with our financial officials, with our human capital officers, whoever it is that sits on that team to help deliver, in the end, those solutions that support our mission.

HSToday: You mentioned earlier encouraging risk-taking by your staff. That’s an issue for feds, right? They’re seen as very risk-averse.

Correa: So I would go back to encouraging innovation and creativity. It’s about helping people understand that they can take risks. And that’s a tough thing to do in the culture that we work in – because that culture is one of constant oversight. We deal with protests. We deal with audits, you know, because we have to be accountable for what we do. I understand that. But that also [makes you feel] somebody is looking over your shoulder.

So we have to take that fear out of it and we do that by providing really good training, by collaborating, by working together to come up with good solutions, by getting the right people that can help us answer questions and navigate through the risks that we might confront.

But also it’s about leadership. It’s about having the right leaders in place that know and understand. You can help people navigate through those risks and get away from that fear factor.

…Don’t worry about getting a protest. You’re probably going to get a protest. What you want to do is make sure that you wrote a procurement where you can win that protest. That’s what you’ve got to care about. I assume that there’s going to be an auditor that’s going to come in and look at your books. So you write that file in a way that it passes muster. But at the end of the day we’ve just got to do the right thing for the right reasons to deliver on that mission.

HSToday: If you were able to change one thing about the way businesses approach you to try to do business with DHS, what would it be?

Correa: So first of all, I think industry generally does a really good job. I’m appreciative of the partnership of industry to come in and help us achieve our missions. … But what I would say that industry can do is continue to keep us informed. Help us understand what we do well and what we don’t do so well. And when you see [those problems], bring it to us. Don’t throw it out there in the ether. … If there is a DHS solicitation out there and you see something wrong with it, you can bring that issue to my attention. I prefer that you bring it to my attention as quickly as possible so that I can take corrective action. I can’t fix what was wrong yesterday. I can fix what’s wrong today.

And that doesn’t mean that we always agree with industry. Sometimes industry doesn’t like something for their reasons and we have to do it that way anyway. But at least we can help them understand. So I would ask that they engage with us not just when there’s a solicitation but even when there isn’t. At events like this. And I hold what I call Reverse Industry Days so that industry can educate us on how they think, how they see things.

We host acquisition innovation roundtables where we bring up issues and say ‘let’s have a discussion about these issues and how can we help you.’ … And I think it’s by understanding each other’s business processes, kind of coming together, we can solve a lot of problems. They can teach us a lot about what we’re doing that perhaps impacts them negatively or otherwise and we can teach them [about the] things that they do that impact us.

HSToday: Talk a little bit more about protests. What could industry do, what could you do to try to reduce the number of protests?

Correa: Protests are a natural part of the process. That process exists to give industry an opportunity to challenge us if they believe we’ve done something wrong or inappropriate, and they should have that forum.

But I want industry to use that forum properly. A lot of times, not always but often, I’ve seen protests are filed not because something was done wrong but because perhaps we didn’t explain what we did very well. So we have to do a better job with debriefings – offering unsuccessful bidders the chance to come in and understand, learn from us what they might have done [better].

Sometimes we don’t do that process very well and sometimes we don’t give industry the opportunity to ask questions, and there are time constraints on when they can file a protest, so sometimes they get a little anxious as well.

I think industry has to ask questions. And they have to be direct with their questions, tell us what is it that they seek to know. I don’t know that you will ever get rid of the protest, but I think we can create a better environment where protests are not so much about distrust, as they are about ‘I really think you did something wrong and I’m challenging you.’

It’s OK to do that as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons. There are frivolous protests out there. There are folks that file protests because [as the incumbent] they get an extra hundred days on their contract when they do that. There are some that file a protest because they figure if I pose a challenge, maybe during the discovery process I’ll see materials and maybe I’ll find something wrong with the procurement. Those are the things that I don’t like.

Now I’ll tell you something about protests that I think is extremely interesting: At DHS, our statistics are actually pretty good. Less than 1 percent of contestable procurement actions are actually protested at DHS. And that’s pretty much been our track record. Now you know when people look at protests, for example in the IT environment, you might think everything is being protested. It really isn’t. But it feels that way sometimes because you see so many of them, because we do so much [contracting]. We process about 90,000-plus transactions a year.

Another interesting statistic: About 8.3 percent of the protests that are filed are actually sustained. That means that our win rate is over 91 percent.

But here’s the really important thing. We can take corrective action and we do. When somebody files a protest and they identify that we had a misstep – we failed to evaluate properly, or we missed a piece of the process – the agency can take corrective action and we do. We will go to GAO and say ‘sorry, we need to take corrective action,’ and we’ll pull back and we’ll do a do-over.

HSToday: And that’s prior to any judgment? You will just look at the file and say uh-oh, our bad?

Correa: Yes. When we get a protest, we go back, we look at what we did and if we find we did something wrong, we can go back and take corrective action. And we’ve done that in several circumstances where we found that we had a misstep. But that’s part of the process, right? We have human beings working on this process. Mistakes get made. And if protests help us find those, that’s a good thing. So that’s why I’m not down on protests. They can help us.

But what I want is some reasonableness to that process. I want the protest to be for the right reasons. And then I want us to act appropriately. Like I said, if industry alerts us early about a problem, we’re going to step in and try to fix it.

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Shaun is an award-winning journalist who has worked for the BBC and United Press International. In the past five years, Shaun has launched two of the best-respected and most widely read DC daily cybersecurity newsletters — POLITICO Pro's Morning Cybersecurity and Scoop News Group's CyberScoop. Shaun became UPI's Homeland and National Security Editor shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, covering the Department of Homeland Security from its standup in 2003. His reporting on DHS and counter-terrorism policy earned him two (2005, 2011) "Dateline Washington" awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, and a senior fellowship at the George Washington University Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. In 2009-10 Shaun produced a major report on cybersecurity for critical infrastructure at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a leading Washington think tank. From 2010-2013, he wrote about intelligence, foreign affairs and cybersecurity as a staff reporter for The Washington Times. Shaun, who is British, has a master’s degree in social and political sciences from King’s College, Cambridge. He is married and lives in Washington, DC with his wife and three American sons, Miles, Harry and Peter.

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