Innovation Through Technology
by Elizabeth Chirico and John Burchill, U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center
March 18, 2020
Over the past year, within both government and industry, there has been a great deal of buzz surrounding new and emerging technologies that have the power to speed up business processes and give valuable time back to professional workforces. Key benefits include, in addition to streamlined processes, improved data transparency, security and accuracy; reduction in workforce time spent on administrative tasks; fewer administrative errors and a resulting increase in compliance; lower operating costs; and quicker access to accurate, timely information.
In fiscal year 2019, Stuart Hazlett, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for procurement (DASA(P)) reorganized the Office of the DASA(P) (ODASA (P)), into several reform initiative teams to better support top Army and DOD priorities—lethality, readiness and modernization. The charter of one of those initiatives, Acquisition Innovation through Technology, explores new and emerging technology capabilities that will shift focus from lower-value administrative work to higher-value work requiring critical thinking that will help contracting professionals save time and make better-informed decisions.
Introducing new technology like robotic process automation to the workforce can be challenging, but a pilot program can reduce employee skepticism, eliminating the barrier to the adoption of the technology. (Image by Sorbetto, Getty Images - October 1, 2019)
In support of the Acquisition Innovation through Technology mission, Becky Weirick, executive services director of ODASA(P), partnered with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) and brought together DOD and federal government leaders on Aug. 15, 2019 to collaborate and discuss current technology innovations in acquisition. GSA’s mission—to improve the way that federal agencies buy, build and use technology—dovetailed perfectly with Weirick’s vision. Weirick was seeking to bring acquisition and technical experts together from across the federal government to look for ways to drive innovation through technology in business processes and to leverage each other’s tools, strategies and best practices.
Many federal agencies face similar acquisition challenges, such as various procurement systems producing unstructured data, and require similar solutions. Instead of operating in stovepipes, Weirick wanted to bring agencies together at the inception of deploying new and emerging technologies in acquisition. This inclusive, collaborative vision enables federal agencies to leverage each other’s resources and to communicate more effectively.
Elizabeth Chirico, ODASA(P) acquisition innovation lead, along with Jannine Wilkinson and John Burchill, GSA’s Army national account managers, coordinated and facilitated the meeting at GSA headquarters in Washington, providing a forum for sharing acquisition technology ideas, progress and resources. (Chirico and Burchill are co-authors of this article.) Federal government leaders from a variety of technical backgrounds participated, including data scientists, acquisition policy chiefs, senior procurement executives, contracting chiefs, chief technology officers, chief information officers and resource management leads. Several federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Defense Logistics Agency and GSA, are exploring and piloting a variety of technologies in the acquisition process, including robotic process automation, to improve acquisition business processes. Group members discussed current and future initiatives designed to enhance and streamline the acquisition process by reducing redundancy, saving time and taxpayer dollars, eliminating administrative tasks from the contracting process and freeing up valuable contracting resources to perform critical analysis.
MODERNIZATION THROUGH COLLABORATION
If technology enables us to deliver capability faster, collaboration allows us to increase our collective impact. DASA(P) leadership, in conjunction with GSA, led the charge to partner across federal agencies to leverage technology solutions that one or two agencies individually piloted in order to exponentially increase our collective impact to every federal workforce member. Since robotic process automation is a fairly mature technology, it is particularly interesting to the Army and other members of the group.
Robotic process automation has the power to easily automate straightforward, repeatable processes traditionally executed by a human and ultimately to streamline processes, increase compliance and save time and resources. Robotic automation solutions may differ slightly, but since each federal agency shares key common denominators—the use of the same or similar acquisition systems and processes—the success of one pilot or proof of concept sends ripples across the entire federal space and enables all to accelerate change.
SHIFTING THE CULTURE
One of the most challenging parts of introducing new technology is combating a resistance to change in the workplace. Often, professionals are skeptical of how new technology processes work, or whether they really will produce accurate results and ultimately be helpful. Sometimes, professionals even see the benefit of a new technology or process but are still resistant to using it, because it is outside of their normal process and feels unfamiliar to them. Often, the best way to prove to professionals that a technology like robotic process automation really works is to make sure that they are actively involved in the change process.
A pilot or proof-of-concept of the new technology allows the workforce to see firsthand how the technology works. The true benefit of a pilot program is to allow the technology’s capability to speak for itself. That way, the workforce has the opportunity to experience how the technology saves them time and improves accuracy. Once the technology demonstrates value—even if just in a few targeted locations—word will spread about the benefits, and then others will clamor to adopt the technology, too. As with all things, adapting to even small or incremental changes takes time.
Two civilian agencies have individually piloted similar “contractor responsibility determination” solutions using robotic process automation. This robotic process automation—or “bot” for short—is able to pull information from public websites such as the System for Award Management (SAM) and the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS) just like a human would—except much faster.
In order for a bot to work effectively, a bot technician simply enters, or records, the exact process that a contracting professional would ordinarily take, right down to mouse clicks, typing of data, screenshots and pulling of reports. In this case, the process entails navigating to the SAM.gov and FAPIIS.gov websites, typing in a unique vendor number, also known as a Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) number, and checking each website’s database for results and information indicating whether the contractor is registered in each system in order to do business with the federal government, does not have any active exclusions (such as suspension or debarment) and is otherwise capable of receiving a federal contract award.
To launch this process with the bot, a contracting professional provides the bot with a DUNS number for each contractor (via email or other electronic means), then the bot takes over the task from there: It enters each DUNS number into both the SAM and FAPIIS websites, creates screenshot reports from the information listed in the sites, populates a document with the results for each vendor that it finds, and sends the results to a contracting specialist—in no more than four minutes.
In September, the Army awarded a contract to procure a “contractor responsibility determination” bot to enable contracting professionals to shift their focus from low-value administrative tasks like checking SAM.gov for a given contractor’s registration, to high-value, critical-thinking areas of their work such as negotiations and cost analysis. Once the Army demonstrates success of the bot, it plans to extend use of it to other DOD and federal agencies. That way, multiple federal agencies will have the opportunity to leverage and share in the Army’s success of a streamlined process. Federal agencies are banding together to divide and conquer other aspects of acquisition ripe for automation, such as searching government systems for contractors’ past performance information, or auto-populating required Federal Acquisition Regulation clauses for specific types of requirements.
SAVE THE SPECIALISTS AND DELIVER CAPABILITY
Contract specialists and contracting officers often manage critical and diverse portfolios of contract requirements for various customers, stakeholders and requiring activities. Usually, each requiring activity and stakeholder views the contracting aspect of the acquisition process as the final speed bump to delivering capability or completing the mission. Delivering capability in the Army means delivering lethality and readiness to our Soldiers.
Most contracting professionals are used to an urgent, high-tempo work environment. Robotic process automation has the power to dramatically cut time and reduce unnecessary stress in an often cumbersome acquisition process. In this case, robotic process automation enables contracting professionals to be more productive with their time by allowing them to use their critical-thinking skills on complex cost analysis for procuring weapon systems or conducting multifaceted negotiations, rather than spending time waiting for multiple websites to load or re-entering the same information into several forms or systems.
For example, it usually takes a contracting professional up to an hour to complete a contractor responsibility determination process. This tedious task is a required part of the acquisition process that a contracting professional must complete multiple times throughout the course of awarding a new contract. This check is required during three stages of an acquisition:
The market research stage: When the acquisition team is looking for contractors that will be able to perform the type of work that they are looking for.
The competitive range stage: Once the team requests and receives contractors’ proposals, in order to determine if the top contractors, or “competitive range,” that submitted proposals are capable of receiving a federal award.
At the time of final award: To make sure that the selected contractor is still capable of receiving an award from the federal government (no suspensions, debarments or violations of federal law have taken place since the last check).
As you can imagine, over the course of a year, contracting professionals perform many responsibility determination checks. A DASA(P) internal report showed that on average, the Army issues approximately 250,000 contract actions per year, requiring contracting professionals to determine whether a contractor is responsible in each stage of the action. Based on initial estimates, using an Army bot in the contractor responsibility determination process will save up to 13 days of time annually for each contracting professional (over 7,000 total) across the Army. Thirteen days saved per contracting professional would drastically help to reduce procurement administrative lead time across the board for all acquisitions, just by speeding up one small administrative task. Imagine if we applied robotic process automation solutions to other areas of the acquisition process: We could deliver capability to our Soldiers much faster.
DASA(P) led the charge in acquisition modernization efforts by strategically collaborating with other federal agencies using technology enablers in the acquisition arena, piloting a contractor responsibility determination bot across the Army contracting enterprise, and by extending the bot capability and success of the pilot to other DOD and federal agencies to use.
By leveraging these new and emerging technologies, we can drive productivity, increase quality and save time—and everyone wants the ability to work more efficiently. Every generation of new technology enables new business processes, often improving quality of life in ways once unimaginable. Automation in acquisition is no different. Leveraging emerging technology and innovation within the federal space aligns with the President’s Management Agenda as well as the National Defense Strategy. Both documents highlight the critical need for government agencies and DOD to enhance mission effectiveness through the modernization of systems, processes and capabilities.
Federal acquisition leaders should continue to coordinate and collaborate, sharing successes and thinking of creative ways to use rapidly evolving technology to streamline acquisition and business processes. Together, we can change the shape of acquisition by employing technology to better enable the federal workforce to deliver capability more efficiently and effectively.
ELIZABETH CHIRICO is the acquisition innovation lead in the ODASA(P). She holds an M.S. in acquisition and contract management from the Florida Institute of Technology and a B.A. in English from the University of Mary Washington. She is Level III certified in contracting and is a member of the Army Acquisition Corps.
JOHN BURCHILL is the Army national account manager at the GSA. He holds an MBA from Binghamton University and a B.S. in marketing and management from Ithaca College. He has Level II Federal Acquisition Certification for Contracting Officer’s Representatives, an ITIL Foundations Certification and a master’s certificate in federal project management.
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