Office of Procurement, Acquisition and Logistics (OPAL)
VA's Technology Acquisition Center: Leading the Charge in Digital Procurement
July 8, 2020
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Technology Acquisition Center (TAC) is leading the charge and enabling VA’s digital transformation through innovative procurement practices designed to improve and simplify the way the Federal government purchases information technology (IT) goods and services. With agile procurement methodologies at the ready and knowledge gained from the new Digital IT Acquisition Professional (DITAP) certification program, the TAC has been coordinating with its Federal procurement colleagues and is designing innovative and flexible procurements for complex digital services including agile software development, managed services, cloud, big data, internet of things, and open source, to not only meet but exceed the needs of our Nation’s Veterans.
Answering the President’s call for an overhaul in the way the Federal Government purchases information technology (IT), the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) and the United States Digital Service (USDS) issued a challenge to government and commercial acquisition training organizations to create and pilot an innovative training and development program. The DITAP certification program is a six-month training course that prepares graduates to design innovative and flexible procurements for complex digital services including agile software development, managed services, cloud, big data, internet of things, and open source. Program graduates receive a Federal Acquisition Certification in Contracting (FAC-C) Core-Plus Specialization in Digital Services (FAC-C-DS) as a result of their study and course completion.
The TAC has been and continues to be the VA’s leader in pursuit of this digital Information Technology certification and practice with 96% of eligible TAC staff holding FAC-C-DS certifications, and more contracting staff being trained daily whether through formal cohorts or on the job learning with experienced colleagues proudly sharing methods and lessons learned. Further, according to the OFPP Director of Digital Service Procurement, there were 197 FAC-C-DS certified contracting professionals across the Federal Government at the end of FY19 and 91 of those were from the TAC.
With the body of knowledge gained via its many DITAP training cohorts as well as through coordination with the US Digital Services team, the TAC has become a leader in this space executing code challenges, user centered design challenges, and procurement of agile software development in flexible and impactful ways. The TAC’s stakeholders both within and outside the Agency are raving about the innovative methods being used. For example, Mr. Jeffrey Barnes, a product owner and digital services expert within the VA’s Office of Information and Technology (OI&T) stated, “The VA would be in a very different place if it hadn’t taken advantage of the new and creative ways of evaluating contractors and structuring contracts as taught in DITAP. The biggest benefit for us is the change from the ‘tell me’ methodology in written proposals to the ‘show me’ methodology,” Barnes explained.
As part of the TAC’s coding or design challenges, subject matter experts like Mr. Barnes and other government evaluators will typically also request artifacts from previous work completed by the competing vendors. This data will serve as one of the elements examined during selection decisions. Further, the coding or design challenge itself allows government evaluators to validate whether vendors will be able to deliver if they were to win the competition. These methodologies further serve to validate claims made in the vendors’ written technical volumes, when required. Barnes confirmed that getting to see the combination of these things is very powerful and gives evaluators added confidence that the vendor selected will successfully execute and thus, meet the Agency’s critical mission.
Mary O’Toole, a Contracting Officer Representative and digital services expert in OIT agreed with Mr. Barnes’ assertions, stating, “If we weren’t doing evaluations this way, then it’s more hit or miss whether we can find vendors that have the kind of experience we’re looking for.” She and Barnes both stated that witnessing the process of vendors working with product owners and developing code in real-time gives a window into the vendors’ corporate culture, and whether they truly use agile development methodologies.
In addition to using innovative evaluation techniques such as those described above, the TAC has also adjusted the way it structures certain contracts. Mr. Barnes shared that he sees a “ton of value” in the TAC’s use of a fixed-price-per-iteration price structure, and paying for performance, i.e. “paying for delivery, not deliverables.” Further, Ms. O’Toole stated that for contract management, “having the delivery” of functional software, and “not documentation as the deliverable is key.” She summarized the TAC’s support by saying, “we couldn’t do what we do without the support and eagerness of the contracting community.”
The TAC will continue to equip its workforce with the skills necessary to evaluate and award contracts in a cutting-edge manner to meet the needs of the Veterans they are so proud to serve. Further, TAC leadership recognizes that executing new, flexible procurement methodologies can also serve as a recruitment tool both for new customers and employees alike. As one of the TAC Contracting Officers remarked, “It is exciting to see the changes being made in procurement in the Federal Government and to be a part of it right here at the VA’s TAC.”
If your Agency is interested in gaining the TAC’s support, please contact their customer service representatives at 732-440-9708 or email: Richard.Loeffler@va.gov.