6 Things You Must Know About Buying Digital Services (and Will Learn at DITAP)

There are several key concepts an acquisition professional must know when buying digital services. Understand these concepts, and you can significantly increase the chances of success for you and your team.

1 – User research is the foundation for continuously delivering value in a technology procurement

All government systems and applications have a user somewhere. Most likely, that user is an American citizen and customer of the agency. A successful digital services procurement and delivery is impossible without regular user feedback. Highly effective design thinking and human-centered design principles should be used when designing, developing, or implementing any government digital product or service. And remember, the business owner or requirement owner is likely not the true end-user. We must not only talk to users but observe their behavior as they interact with a particular product, service, or process.

2 – Collaborate with experienced teams

There are myriad private companies that excel in technology implementation and software development. Similar or relevant experience is almost always a key determining factor when selecting a partner for a technology project. Don’t take their word for it either. While “show me, don’t tell me” evaluation techniques like tech demos can be useful, they may not always be practical. An alternative lightweight approach is to review public code repositories from the company or its key personnel, particularly for a software development effort. This technique can give the government team a better sense of how the contractor works, develops technology, utilizes open source software, and incorporates user-centered design.

3 – The product vision guides the government-contractor partnership, not an exhaustive requirements matrix

Not all digital services buys involve software development, but most do. Agile development works best when there is flexibility to adjust based on user feedback or changing priorities. Flexibility may be perceived as the holy grail of contract design, but it actually is achievable. A statement of objectives (SOO) with a well-designed vision and a few guiding objectives can serve as the “North Star” for the procurement, development, and operations teams. Any change that pops up can be implemented as long as it supports that vision, reducing contract modifications and freeing the acquisition team to focus on higher-value work. An effective SOO should never have hundreds of requirements and specifications. Although, if there is an existing backlog of user stories, it can be effective to provide them to potential contractors as a reference (i.e., not hardcoded into the requirement), so they have a better idea of what they are bidding on.

4 – Meaningful engagement with the market can unlock hidden value and innovation

No single person or organization can possibly know every potential solution or innovation relevant to a specific problem. No matter what industry you look at, the best teams consistently share information and ideas. It is no different for the government acquisition team, which, in a broad sense, includes the pool of contractors with expertise in a field necessary for your procurement. Whether we are tactical or strategic, conducting market research, or building market intelligence, it is beneficial to include industry in your journey of discovery so everyone can share ideas and learn. That may manifest via governmentwide efforts like category management or procurement-specific efforts like co-designing a solicitation and product vision with a group of highly accomplished digital service providers.

5 – Post-award management is as important, if not more important than solicitation development

The acquisition lifecycle does not stop at award. Never has, never will. Especially with digital services, we need to put in the time and effort to monitor development and delivery, stay adaptable, and be empowered and courageous enough to pivot when user demands require it or when incremental value is no longer being delivered to the government. This means using metrics that track actual value being delivered on a repeatable timeframe (e.g., every sprint or iteration) rather than vanity metrics that incentivize inefficient behavior. Digital services teams strive to include team members when determining useful metrics. The further away from the work you are, the more likely you are to create a metric that does not encourage consistent value creation.

6 – Success stories surround us if we are ready to learn from our peers

There has been incredible momentum in the government and civic tech space over the last 5-10 years. Numerous projects have been successfully implemented by thoughtful government-contractor partnerships utilizing lean, Agile, and human-centered design techniques. Real government innovation and culture change can be observed in real-time via the impact of efforts like DITAP and the DHS Procurement Innovation Lab. Now more than ever, acquisition professionals have a healthy pool of resources and experience to rely on, including DITAP alumni, Digital.gov communities of practice, open data and code on Data.gov and GitHub, FAI’s Periodic Table of Acquisition Innovations, and many more. The groundswell of information has led to a grassroots movement across the government, improving digital services acquisition outcomes. We must strive to be a part of that movement and continue sharing and learning from each other.

In addition to understanding these concepts, the Management Concepts DITAP cohorts take the same group of digital acquisition professionals from digital services introduction through hands-on acquisition lifecycle applications and change agent strategies together. Your collective knowledge will build together and enable you to establish camaraderie and a network from which you can continue to build your knowledge and skills.

Written by:
Eric Bubar
Acquisition & Contracting



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