October 2015
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The Public Manager

A Better Way to Buy

Friday, October 9, 2015

HHS's new technology acquisition and procurement process eliminates the unnecessary, lengthy, and outdated procurement method.


Current government acquisition and procurement methods are inefficient and cumbersome. But the Buyers Club at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is proving that better alternatives are possible. Its goal is simple: a more agile acquisition process.

Many experts agree that government's use of technology lags behind the private sector. According to a 2015 survey of senior civil servants by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), conducted in partnership with ICF International, many agencies struggle to adopt new technology. In fact, less than half (42 percent) of study participants believe their agencies dedicate appropriate resources to maximizing digital technology.

A major obstacle to keeping pace with new technology is the government's acquisition and procurement processes. When NAPA asked whether existing procedures enable agencies to buy the digital tools and services they need, the vast majority said processes are too slow and overly burdened with requirements. In addition, because acquisition and procurement cycles are typically longer than IT development cycles, they create an unnecessary, lengthy, and outdated way of performing mission needs.

Clearly, innovative strategies to leverage procurement are needed. The Buyers Club is an HHS IDEA Lab project that focuses on modernizing federal acquisition of IT and related services.

Here's how it works: The Buyers Club breaks HHS tech procurement into two stages. First, solicitations are listed for contractor bidding like any other project. Next, HHS selects three to five developers to create prototypes for the given IT project—and grants them funds to do so—before settling on one contractor to develop the full technology. The idea is to induce contractors competing for the requirements to really hone in on vital requirements of project success.


After reaching its one-year milestone this summer, Mark Naggar, project manager for HHS Buyers Club, now hopes to teach and expand the Buyers Club concept across all of HHS. For instance, HHS's Office of Population Affairs is seeking help from the Buyers Club with finding resources to improve and expand its online presence and services.

What's more, other agencies hope to replicate HHS's early success. Case in point: the Department of Homeland Security has launched Acquisition Innovations in Motion to commit to its FY 2015 goals. AIiM plans to start its own procurement innovation labs, as well as conduct industry roundtables to help streamline acquisition timelines and deliver capability to operators faster.

To spread the Buyers Club concept throughout government, Anne Rung, administrator for the Office of Federal Procurement, announced that it plans to issue guidance on opening Buyers Club-like labs. Because every agency has different needs, though, the plan is to outline general principles that agencies can incorporate, but still allow flexibility. Stay tuned.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected]

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