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Teaching Digital Buyers to Transform Acquisition

Public prize competition takes culture change to new level.

If you teach someone traditional government procurement, you’ll get better procurement. But if you use agile learning methods and immerse the same person in real-world digital services buys, then you might help transform government acquisition.  That’s the theory behind the Office of Management and Budget’s outside-the-box approach to creating a training program for digital services contracting that’s as innovative as the methods to be bought.

OMB’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy launched a $360,000 challenge in May seeking proposals for the program. The Digital Services Contracting Professional Training and Development Program is intended to develop professionals who can embed with agency digital service teams as their business advisers, as well as acting as advocates for digital services procurement governmentwide.

Three challenge finalists — teams from GovLoop, Management Concepts Inc., ICF International, and my company, ASI Government — received $20,000 each to expand their initial responses, deliver oral presentations, and instruct a one-hour classroom session. The ICF-ASI team won the grand prize: an opportunity to test our proposal by training 30 certified contracting professionals, along with $250,000 to cover our costs. There’s another $50,000 in prize money available for developing an ongoing program.

Nothing about OFPP’s approach was traditional.

For example, the public prize competition allowed OFPP to reach a broader pool of participants than a normal procurement. It also cost less.

OFPP applied the relatively new prize competition method to search for novel learning approaches for an even newer initiative: the digital government strategy.

The White House released it in 2012, calling on agencies to:

  • Provide digital information and services anywhere, anytime on any device.
  • Become platforms for disseminating government data to citizens and spur innovation.
  • Smartly, securely and affordably buy digital devices, applications and data.

Since then, APIs — application programming interfaces enabling easy connection to and use of federal data sets — have blossomed. Government apps have bloomed — from the Arlington Cemetery Explorer to Real Time Earthquake Information, USAJobs to College Navigator. And in 2014, the U.S. Digital Service was born to enlist bright digital talent in remaking government services. Agency-level digital service teams mandated by OMB are expected to be in place this month.

The challenge contest sought innovative training designed to enable digital services buyers to “foster transformative change in the federal acquisition culture.” Contestants had to recognize just how revolutionary buying digital is, and they were expected to propose equally edge-pushing learning methods.

“Experts in the field of training and development told us our focus should be on learning, not just training,” Joanie Newhart, OFPP associate administrator for acquisition workforce programs, wrote in a blog post. “We listened, and we’re exploring these concepts in our effort.” 

Digital services procurement requires creativity, critical thinking, alliance-building and stakeholder wrangling. Graduates will need to know, and understand, the digital lexicon.

They must help agencies take advantage of a cutting-edge mix of cloud computing, mobile devices, apps, agile development, user experience, security and Web development, along with whatever new technological possibilities tomorrow will bring.

Buying, blending and building these capabilities is such a tradition-busting proposition that OMB felt the need to issue a Digital Service Playbook and a companion TechFAR handbook in August 2014 to stretch federal imaginations  and introduce agile approaches to contract for and develop new digital “plays.” Both will be textbooks for the new digital contracting course.

The pilot course will test tradition in myriad ways. For example, participants will earn recognition and course credit by contributing to the emerging body of lean and agile contracting knowledge through blogging, articles, white papers and presentations. They might even add plays to the Digital Services Playbook.

The six-month course will imitate the agile software development approach that its graduates will be buying. It will deliver new material in two-week iterations combined into four-week releases. As in agile development projects, the users — students, their peers, faculty and stakeholders — will give continuous feedback, and the course will be adjusted on the fly.

Materials and requirements will evolve and adapt too, based on participants’ needs and technology that’s changing at the speed of Moore’s law. Students’ learning paths will differ as their individual development plans are updated based on their performance on assignments and regular assessments.

 A cornerstone of the program will be learning by doing in a real-world scenario. During the course, each student team will complete a live digital service assignment, such as drafting a request for proposals for a digital services team or establishing a digital services governmentwide, blanket-purchase agreement.

Transformative change, especially in government, takes a village, so students will work in cohorts that will provide a support network when they return to their agencies. In addition, to ensure their newfound skills don’t wither due to opposition or disuse, participants will collaborate with their supervisors, mentors, faculty and the agency owners of their live assignments throughout the course. Graduates will be expected to mentor future classes, champion the program to attract future participants and continue to share best practices.

The course mixes classroom and virtual classwork on open-source portal accessible 24-7 by mobile devices. Recognizing that people learn in different ways, the portal will feature simulations, games, readings, visual and audio media, role playing, virtual forums and discussion boards.

Once digital contracting cohorts begin infiltrating back into their agencies, we can gauge whether this unconventional brew of contest, agile learning, and guerrilla culture change really will catalyze procurement transformation.

In the meantime, 30 acquisition pros are in for the agile, digital educational ride of their lives, created not by Silicon Valley startups, but by award-winning upstart thinking by two longtime government contractors.

Timothy W. Cooke is president and CEO of ASI Government.

(Image via Black Jack/