On December 3rd 2009, Executive Biz and Military Information Technology Magazine, together held a conference call with Mary Davie, Assistant Commissioner of Office of Assisted Acquisition Services, Dan Mutz, of the National Academy of Public Administration, and Esther Burgess or ACT/IAC Acquisition Management Shared Interest Group. The topic discussed was the Better Buy Project.
Mary Davie, Assistant Commissioner, Office of Assisted Acquisition Services
Dan Munz, National Academy of Public Administration
Esther Burgess, ACT/IAC Acquisition Management Shared Interest Group
Ellen Scott, Executive Biz
Hank Donnelly, Military Information Technology Magazine
ExecutiveBiz: What are the main goals of the Better Buy Project? Can you tell us about the coalition of organizations involved with it and what you think the future of it will be? Is there a time frame for the project?
Mary Davie: The main goals are to determine how to use collaborative technology to improve the federal acquisition process. Specifically to make it more open, collaborative and transparent because as everybody knows the government spends $530 billion a year on procuring goods and services and we do so across a multitude of different agencies and thousands if not millions of transactions. It’s a pretty complex and complicated process so we wanted to find a way to potentially apply collaborative technology to at least the pre-award part of the acquisition process to make it more open and collaborative and transparent which would result in better outcomes for government. The whole thought behind this was there was a lot of good discussion going on in the acquisition group. IAC was also doing a lot of work in terms of looking at acquisition and specifically looking at ways to apply collaborative processes and collaborative technology and we thought why not take this public and ask people for ideas around ways to apply collaborative technology. We have to call it social media on the Better Buy site. Ask people to comment on others ideas and ask people to vote on them. The GSA role in all of this is to look at those ideas and determine if they are ideas we could apply to specific acquisitions that we are doing and start to test some of the ideas and the philosophy behind this and see if we actually can get approved outcome.
Dan Munz: The other thing I would add is that we, the National Academy, come to these issues from a perspective that is very much focused on solving the complex management challenges of government. From us one of the things that is really appealing about this is if you look at the way it formed, the Better Buy project kind of started as an idea and picked up traction in that group and then really moved to this focused initiative that is the Better Buy project which is eventually going to lead to concrete improved outcomes. It is a great example for us of how you really do move in a tangible way from a community identifying a problem, talking about it and surfacing issues surrounding the problem, taking concrete action and then showing the results that has. We think that is a really important example for folks across federal government and all levels of government, even aside from the acquisition focus of it.
Military Information Tech Magazine: How about IAC? How does this fit in with your mission?
Esther Burgess: Basically from the IAC perspective we try to improve communications and collaboration and thought leadership as an exchange between the industry and the government. ACT and IAC is actually a two part organization; ACT being the government people and IAC being the industry people. This works perfectly in the acquisition management shared interest group. We are interested in helping to find ways for the industry to better respond to the government and ultimately save taxpayers money by improving the process and getting the government to buy what they need to buy in the most effective and efficient manner. This is a way for people, whoever had some issues – you always hear about complaints, ‘why can’t government do this’, ‘why can’t we do that’. This is providing a forum that they can actually put the ideas and put it to work.
Military Information Technology Magazine: I was just looking at the Better Buy page here and it has at the top two very good ideas which are improved training and not having end of the year procurements but both of those are not . . . I don’t know how specific some of the others are but how do you plan to implement something like that. Both of those are kind of big and a lot of obstacles.
Mary Davie: We are actually excited by all of the ideas that people are posting. Some of them are obviously outside of the collaborative technology scope but that is ok because what we are doing is giving people a place to generate some ideas and discussion. Some of them are potentially other ways that those ideas could be reviewed or evaluated or taken into consideration whether it is through 5:29 procurement policy channel or whatever that looks like. We are more focused on the collaborative process and technology aspect and how that would apply to an acquisition but it doesn’t mean that ideas that are outside that scope won’t be considered they just might be considered in a different forum.
Dan Munz: One of the really great things about this project is that this idea generation that is happening is not happening in isolation from GSA and that is entirely to Mary’s credit in stepping out and taking that risk. One of the nice things is that when folks submit their ideas you have this voting element that will show us which are the most popular among the community but there is the chance to layer that also against the expertise that the folks that are in GSA and government and really work with the process have to bring. We feel that there is a really powerful element to bringing together the things that are the top priorities and top ideas for the customers of this process and the things that we know to be true and we know to be realistic and we know to be kind of important constraints and opportunities for those that are inside the process. That working together between the people who conduct this process and the people that it serves is one of the things that really makes this a unique initiative and not just an exercise in coming up with ideas but a real force for changing the process.
ExecutiveBiz: Have you run into any problems with the fact that Better Buy is completely opened to public for anyone to post? How does that work?
Mary Davie: Dan might be able to address that but as far as I know, no. We were all pleasantly surprised that the ideas were all on track so we are not getting anything that we would consider off topic or off the wall. It has been a very focused discussion around acquisition mostly and so we haven’t run into any of those issues that we have run into on other initiatives.
Dan Munz: That’s entirely right, just from the technical standpoint things have been really smooth. One of the great things about having this originate on govloop is that there is already a community there that is ready to engage in this discussion really productively and talk it out and be respectful and productive and not stone throwing or some of the things you see. Another nice thing about this platform also is that it does allow an element of the community going out and helping us moderate the feedback by voting things up and down. The great thing about the aggregating feature here and the voting is that the burden is not on us to weed things out that we think are off topic or don’t really make sense or don’t really pertain because the community will do that for you.
Esther Burgess: From the acquisition management shared interest group we provide moderators and catalysts, the people part of the equation, to go in and look at the content and to try to encourage discussion through common threads as well as to flag and remove any inappropriate information.
Military Information Technology Magazine: What about the folks at GSA? Maybe they don’t want people telling them all the great ideas they might have that GSA tried in the past or might you get some resistance internally.
Mary Davie: I probably can’t speak on behalf of the entire entity but my perspective is we are open to any and all ideas because we are a pretty small group of people if you compare us to everybody in the federal space working on acquisitions. I know there are an enormous amount of good ideas that are out there; that the process can be improved, that the communication could be improved just based on people’s real experiences on the industry side and the government side. Why not work through some of those ideas together. I think at the end of the day you are talking about a specific individual whether it is a contracting officer or a program manager, they obviously want something that is going to give them a better result but also something that will probably make their job a little easier in the long run, maybe more efficient, make the process less costly – whatever those things look like. We will have specific goals identified for each of these ideas as well and say to people ‘how did that apply to what we wanted to achieve in terms of the organization, in terms of improving mission effectiveness, in terms of making the procurement less costly or whatever those goals are’. I’m encouraging other agencies to pick these ideas up as we go too and try them out and let us know how it goes. We’ve got the companion blog site that MAPA is also hosting and we are going to blog throughout this process about what we are doing, how it is going, both from a government and an industry side. I really want this to be as open as possible so that we know what comes out of it and how it can improve the acquisition process across government.
Dan Munz: The other thing to say is that to the extent that you’ve got folks coming on here that really are veterans of the acquisition process. Every additional user that you have that comes on here and gives you feedback on ‘here’s how it works for me’ and ‘here’s what it looks like from my vantage point’, is kind of another unit of situational awareness for GSA and understanding how customers are thinking, feeling and reacting to certain things. There is no commitment in this that we’ll go out and do the top three ideas. It is not necessarily putting it up for a vote and there is that human element but this feedback is something that just really is invaluable I think. Not to speak for GSA but really is invaluable in terms of giving more information about what people’s priorities are and what they would like to see. One of the things that is really making this thing go is that the desire for new ideas is genuine, it’s not just an exercise in letting you tell us what you think but the idea is the desire for new ideas is really something that is genuine. That’s really what is powering this process.
Esther Burgess: Another thing that I think is powerful here is that the site allows people to comment either with their user name or anonymously. We are trying to encourage opinions from the government people actually doing the work as government contracting officers from project people as well as from other people who have not really had experience working with the government and from the industry people who always . . . who are already doing business. I actually have seen comments on the site that are coming from the people doing the work, government contracting people per say that actually say ‘hey wait a minute, if you do this how is it going to affect me and have you thought about this or have you thought about that’. It has actually spurred conversation and helped raise awareness of potential issues or problems doing implementation of that idea. Sometimes ideas exist but it helps in the execution of that idea too. I think that is very helpful.