Emerging Technology

by Ashlei N. Stevens, PSC Director of Media Relations

Modernizing federal information technology is a key driver in reforming the government. As laid out in the President’s Management Agenda, modern IT “must function as the backbone of how Government serves the public in the digital age.” And it’s more than just updating legacy IT systems and doing away with the era of floppy disks: the acquisition process itself must be modernized to mitigate risk and to give federal agencies broader access to commercial capabilities.

The Professional Services Council (PSC) spoke with two federal IT leaders who are using emerging tech to improve the acquisition process and, in turn, the delivery of mission outcomes. Omar Saeb, Alliant 2 Program Manager at the General Services Administration, discusses how Alliant 2 is a premiere vehicle in acquiring the federal government’s emerging tech needs. José Arrieta, Chief Information Officer at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), highlights features of Accelerate, a revolutionary procurement solution developed (thanks in part, he says, to PSC) to digitize and streamline the acquisition life cycle.

Read Alliant 2: Leading the Way in Emerging Tech | Read Accelerate: Transforming Acquisition at HHS

What are the most impactful emerging technologies, and how do they enhance government missions?

All emerging technologies are impactful in the sense that they frequently work together to accomplish a given requirement. For example, a particular requirements document can All emerging technologies are impactful in the sense that they frequently work together to accomplish a given requirement. For example, a particular requirements document can include multiple elements of emerging technologies such as AI, IoT (Internet of Things) and biometrics that all work together to accomplish the overall project. Specifically, what we have seen with the types of requirements that were submitted in order to win a spot on Alliant 2, the most impactful technologies cannot be narrowed down to a few, but rather which ones are more relevant to a particular agency’s requirement. Whereas within the defense sector there may be significant interest in AI and biometrics, the transportation sector may be more focused on IoT as their most impactful emerging technology. In summary, the most impactful emerging technologies are situational, based on the mission of a particular agency and how the technologies bring about efficiency and innovation to meet an agency’s mission. The awareness of this notion is why we built the breadth and depth of multiple leading-edge technologies into the Governmentwide Acquisition Contract (GWAC). As a contract that supports the entire federal government, we have full confidence that Alliant 2 can meet agencies’ emerging technology needs.

How is Alliant 2 leading the way in acquiring the government’s emerging tech needs?

Alliant 2 leads the way in acquiring emerging tech for agencies as a result of the innovative way in which the vehicle was solicited and awarded. The industry proposals, and subsequent government technical evaluation of those proposals, provided a wealth of information about the type of emerging technology work being done across the government and commercial sector by all the contract awardees. This valuable information was analyzed and provided a clear picture of the capabilities of the awardees under the Alliant 2 program. This assists the Alliant 2 project management office (PMO) in communicating the direct experience of our contract awardees to our government agencies.

What can federal contracts do to keep emerging tech in mind? Should companies list emerging tech in their Statement of Work or in their past performance?

One of the fundamental areas for improvement I’ve seen in proposal responses from the private sector is the absence of “how do we buy this type of emerging technology.” From a technical standpoint, the substance is provided by offerors, but frequently lacks the best practices for the procurement of the item. For example, contract/task order structure and associated pricing is often left unaddressed and never challenged by offerors who may have an innovative way to purchase the emerging tech. For a technology that is emerging into the government space, there needs to be more of a consideration about how we procure this item in the most efficient way possible, but still within the confines of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR).  

We are advocating for our agencies to utilize Statement of Objectives (SOO) type of requirements document in order to receive the best outcomes for the inclusion of emerging technologies. It is counter-intuitive to ask for innovative strategies and emerging technologies yet be prescriptive by issuing a Statement of Work. We at the Alliant 2 PMO advocate to our agencies for the utilization of SOO’s to receive the best possible outcome for the incorporation of emerging technologies and innovative solutions.

What’s the current state of communications between government and industry, and how can it be improved?

The Alliant 2 PMO communication strategy with industry has been a key element to the success in providing high-quality solutions to our government agencies. We have an established Shared Interest Group (SIG) where various initiatives and dialogue between government and industry take place. Some of the topics discussed include conversations about current trends in contracting and how to provide targeted and increased support to customer agencies. Areas for improvement in government/industry communication can be a focus on fostering an increased understanding of the industry decision making process for bidding requirements. I frequently come across government acquisition professionals who want to better comprehend industry’s bid and proposal process for a given requirement. The value of this understanding will ultimately lead to increased competition and higher quality solutions.

What’s ahead for Alliant 2?

Alliant 2 wants to continue the success of the Alliant Program and be the primary vehicle for supporting all information technology—including emerging technology—across the government. We are working with communities of practice and reaching out to customers to facilitate collaboration between industry and customer agencies. The program understands that implementation of emerging tech is best accomplished when all parties collaborate to provide the highest quality solutions to the government.

Some of the world’s leading researchers and IT professionals responding to solicitations for federal contract awards are eager to put their critical skills to work but are currently hampered by an arduous process: learning thousands of pages of Federal Acquisition Regulation, writing an acquisition plan, and completing extensive research on dollars previously spent. But sometimes, new contractors such as researchers supporting the National Institutes of Health, for example, have limited understanding of how to find that information. The current processes also hinder the ability for government personnel that are trying to fulfill needs and communicate effectively with industry. That’s about to change—for the better. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will now provide this information, which will allow them to focus on their expertise.

In an interview with PSC, José Arrieta, Chief Information Officer at HHS, highlights features of Accelerate, a revolutionary procurement solution developed (thanks in part, he says, to PSC) to digitize and streamline the acquisition life cycle. Featuring several emerging technologies, functionality of Accelerate will be accessible for user feedback by Oct. 1, 2019, and is scheduled to go live in January 2020.

How is HHS Accelerate similar to or different than other portals and systems available today, such as SAM.gov?

Accelerate is not a portal: it is a set of capabilities that lessens the burden on industry, enables the program manager, and empowers the contracting professional with access to the same data that is created and exists throughout the acquisition life cycle. We auto-pull information from SAM.gov, we automate the financial responsibility analysis, we create an immutable record of RFI responses–as an example–that an industry partner may have engaged in, so that they don’t have to resubmit them over and over again. We’ve automated much of the administrative process so the industry partner can work with the government to focus their time on critical tasks associated with the acquisition process. There’s also a market research capability for acquisition professionals. At a more detailed level, Accelerate allows the buyer to be smart, and intends to be the first single system to facilitate usercentric efficiencies for all the parties involved across the entire acquisition process.

How will HHS Accelerate revolutionize procurement at HHS?

There’s nothing in the marketplace like this. We’re lessening the burden on industry partners by creating an immutable record of their interactions with us that they have access to. Most of what currently exists in the marketplace is workflow oriented. And we think workflow orientation is very important, but we wanted to create a set of capabilities that learns behaviors and provides deeper insights into the way business is being done so that we can provide better value to those three stakeholder groups: industry, program managers, and contracting professionals.

Describe the journey from having the initial idea of the program to where it stands today.

From April until June 2017, we conducted 100 human-centered design sessions—which are still ongoing—met with 1,500 members of the acquisition workforce and nearly 1,000 members of the industrial base. We started building microservices and a blockchain-based data layer to modernize the way that we do business. Our goal is to index a data set relating to a contract according to federal law and GSA’s category management schema, store it in an immutable way, and use a micro services architecture to actually execute business process.

How are you accounting for the complexities and nuances of services contracting compared to rather straightforward comparisons of products?

With products, it’s much easier to do analysis. It is difficult to analyze services contracts and test different ways of doing business due to a lack of access to data. We believe with Accelerate, we can provide a data set for a number of theories to be tested in a “sandbox” environment, so that theories and ideas on how to do things differently can be tested with live data, and we can get an understanding of what the outcome is and if it’s beneficial or not.

What is the future of HHS Accelerate?

Accelerate changes the culture of the way an agency functions, and it is intended to help all acquisition professionals. The hope is to create efficiencies for integrated project teams—which includes acquisition personnel—across the government. It enables a centralized location for communication among all parties—including transparency with vendors—and is paired with a synchronized build of the documents required during the process of an acquisition. An important feature of Accelerate is that we are user centric and will be continually enhancing in order to meet the changing needs of the users.

We envision having not only a services catalog, but maintaining the drive to meet any ongoing needs for the workforce to be efficient and effective to meet needs. New features and emerging technology will be continually addressed and incorporated on an agile basis as Accelerate is focused on human-centered design.

How can PSC and our members provide feedback as you move forward?

PSC has always been an amazing influence on my career. Alan Chvotkin [PSC Executive Vice President and Counsel], I can honestly say, has had one of the largest impacts on Accelerate of any outside organization. I was speaking at the PSC Federal Health Conference in 2018 and the night before the conference, Alan was mentioned in an article and he said there were three areas where blockchain can have an impact, and it all aligns with the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act. If you move from data center to cloud environment, you can save money and reinvest it. I read that and realized that is the definition of our business plan: we are moving to a cloud environment, we are increasing cybersecurity posture, and we are using emerging technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and blockchain.

Alan, through his interview, gave me the framework to articulate how our project fits with the President’s Management Agenda, the MGT Act, and meeting Office of Management and Budget directives. It shows the impact that the Professional Services Council can have on the federal government and shows how the thinking PSC engages in can positively lead to innovations by federal leaders and allows us to learn and combine what’s going on with policy with what we’re trying to do at an operational level. Big kudos to PSC for engaging in that.

This article was published in the Summer 2019 Service Contractor Magazine. Click here to view a PDF of this article.