What Lies Beneath

Procurement challenges don’t end when a government agency selects a vendor to fulfill a contract. In many ways, they are just beginning.

If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the world of civic tech for the last 5–10 years then you don’t need to be told that one of the major challenges to implementing effective digital solutions in government is the procurement process.

Its hard to find a large or high-profile government technology project that hasn’t had issues with procurement that have negatively impacted how the project was rolled out, or how it ended up being used by citizens. The pandemic has turned this into an almost daily occurrence, and the consequences couldn’t be more dire.

In a recent discussion with a friend who has worked for many years in civic tech, the subject of the CDC’s recent challenges implementing its Vaccine Administration Management System project (VAMS) came up. There’s a lot about this project to criticize from a procurement standpoint, particularly the decision to use a no-bid contract to select a firm — a firm that has a reputation for botched technology jobs with federal agencies.

But that’s when this person made an insightful observation, one that matters a lot when we think about how to improve government procurement.

Even if the agency had chosen a competent firm to do the implementation, are they so bad a procurement that they would have botched it anyway?

It’s easy to look at the dysfunction in the government procurement process and think of it as one big messy problem. But it’s not. It’s actually a whole bunch of messy problems all rolled into one. This makes fixing it more challenging, because we tend to focus on one specific aspect of the process and the dysfunction that manifests there, and rationalize it as the One True Way ©️ to fix procurement.

The different phases of the procurement process in government are generally broken into two overarching stages — pre-award (everything an agency does prior to selecting a vendor), and post-award (everything that happens after). The pre-award stage includes things like market research, development of a formal solicitation, identifying potential vendors suitable for submitting a bid, and the vetting of firms that actually submit proposals. It’s the stage that is most often scrutinized when people in the world of civic tech talk about “procurement reform.”

The post-award stage comes after a vendor has been selected, and includes all the steps necessary to manage the contract and take delivery of the solution developed by the vendor. This stage can take many months to complete (sometimes years), and is critical if a technology solution is going to be successfully completed and implemented.

It would not be inaccurate to describe the way that most people think about the issues facing government procurement — particularly those outside government — using the iceberg analogy. The tip of the iceberg that rises out of the water and is visible is the pre-award stage. It includes the things that are publicly visible, like public solicitations, vendor outreach and communications, and (eventually) an award announcement. The rest of the iceberg is submerged and is harder to see. It includes all of the phases and work in the post-award stage that happen between an agency and the vendor it has chosen to build, test, and deliver a working technology solution.

And like the part of actual icebergs that lie beneath the water, it’s often the part that is most dangerous and fraught with peril for Titanic-sized technology projects.

As a group, I would argue that the civic tech community (and I include myself in this criticism) has traditionally focused too much on the part of the iceberg we can see — the pre-award stage. It’s why we tend to see procurement reform solutions that are focused on picking the “right” kind of firms for agencies to do business with, or ideas like accelerated vendor selection processes. The idea behind these kinds of reforms is that if agencies can just get better in the pre-award stage — by picking a more suitable vendor — that technology projects will have a better chance of success.

And while that’s not untrue, picking the “right” vendor is just one of the many challenges that make government procurement challenges hard. A poorly written set of requirements, an inadequate plan to monitor the quality of the work done by the vendor, a poorly developed plan for testing a solution with real users, failing to address security and accreditation concerns early enough — all things that come in to play in the post-award stage — can sink a technology project like an iceberg.

It’s also the part of the procurement process that is harder to fix, because it requires cultural change in agencies, and investment in the capacity to manage large-scale technology project. This kind of change in government agencies is often expensive and slow to take hold.

Procurement challenges will continue to confront digital services projects in government, but the key to fixing them is to stop thinking about the problem one dimensionally. Avoiding the icebergs that take down technology projects requires us to understand and address the challenges that happen after a vendor is selected.

To succeed as we navigate a technology project to completion, we have to be wary of what lies beneath.

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