Improving Federal IT through Acquisition Innovation Labs

Published: March 23, 2016

Acquisition ReformOMBPolicy and Legislation

In an ongoing effort to improve federal IT investments, OMB announced the launch of Acquisition Innovation Labs earlier this month.

The labs are meant to foster innovative acquisition approaches and to allow agencies to adopt emerging IT acquisition best practices with the goal of improving IT purchasing and implementation. The idea of innovation labs emerged from the success of innovative acquisition approaches being exercised by such organizations as the HHS Buyers Club.

Former HHS CTO, Brian Syvak, recruited Mark Naggar in April 2014 to start the HHS Buyers Club and blaze a trail for more innovative acquisition in the agency. The Buyers Club brings together HHS procurement professionals to discuss and test innovative purchasing ideas.  They used the Digital Services Playbook for the first HHS Buyers Club procurement, redesign of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation’s (ASPE) public and intranet websites.

As a part of the government-wide Innovation Acquisition Labs initiative, agencies are directed to take the following actions:

  • Identify an acquisition innovation advocate (AIA) by March 31, 2016. 
  • Establish an acquisition innovation lab or similar mechanism or ensure the agency’s existing lab or existing mechanisms are structured to optimize results. 
  • Consider applying to participate in the digital acquisition innovation lab pilot.  
  • Participate on the Acquisition Innovation Advocates Council. 
  • Share information with other agencies by contributing and posting to the Innovation Hallway on GSA’s Acquisition Gateway. 

OMB’s 14 page memo provided agencies with detailed implementation instructions which I have summarized in bullets below.

In establishing labs, agencies are instructed to implement the following general best practices:  

  • Promote meaningful collaboration.  
  • Make information technology (IT) a focus area.  
  • Start small when first getting started.  
  • Encourage but do not mandate use of the lab by the workforce at large.  
  • Obtain vendor input. 
  • Recognize contributions.   

Innovation Acquisition Labs should also offer the following types of assistance to their agencies: 

  • Informal business advice 
  • Networking 
  • Access to talent & expertise  
  • Shadowing 
  • Information sharing 
  • Event sponsorship

OMB’s memo states that two of the most important ways in which acquisition labs can drive innovation is by providing an avenue to test new or improved acquisition practices and by helping programs successfully adopt emerging acquisition best practices. 

Examples of testing new or improved practices include: 

  • Leveraging the use of prototyping. 
  • Paying for results. 
  • Buying source code competitively with a government purchase card.
  • Purchase challenge.

Applying emerging acquisition best practices include:  

  • Leveraging the TechFAR and Digital Services Playbook. 
  • Conducting facilitated requirements development for multi-functional teams. 
  • Reducing burden in proposal preparation and evaluation. 
  • Using multi-phased acquisitions. 
  • Making milestone-based payments. 
  • Procuring digital services and software through crowdsourcing.

OMB is encouraging agencies to participate in the Digital Acquisition Innovation Lab Pilot which will provide them with “hands-on coaching of cross-functional teams” from OMB’s U.S. Digital Service, GSA’s 18F group, and a team of Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIFs).

OMB and the administration believes that innovation will rise out of agencies who promote a culture of innovation and creativity among their employees.  According to OMB’s memo, “Agency leadership must recognize that the greatest catalyst for innovation rests inside the agency and its willingness and ability to embrace a culture that continuously encourages new ideas as well as rethinking of existing practices.“