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Agile procurement and implications for Gov. IT vendors: Insights from NASCIO 2016 Midyear Conference

NASCIO 2016 Midyear Conference happened earlier this month. It was the first time I attended the event. As a government health practitioner, I usually interact with Health and Human Services (HHS) executives, from policy and operations through technology. It was interesting to meet with technology executives responsible for the whole state, HHS included.

I learned several things: HHS IT is always on the minds of the state CIOs, but it isn't everything, and in some states it isn't a focus. Some states integrate their HHS plans into statewide plans, some have relatively autonomous HHS units. There isn't much reuse of the base infrastructure and capabilities put in place for HHS. While Meta-Tools are being implemented in HHS (MDM, MPI, MDI, etc.), they aren't being leveraged state-enterprise wide. I also learned that state CIOs are keenly aware of the legal and policy impacts to technology. My favorite comment was that the technology was not there to enable the citizen to get every benefit possible, but to get the right set of benefits they need to solve their problem. Whether that problem be cash, food, and medical benefits from Human Services programs for those in need, or just Joe Citizen trying to plan a camping trip at a state park where he wanted to fish also.

One session dealt with procurement modernization. Anyone who has been through a state procurement, on either state or vendor side, knows what a grueling process it can be. In a post-healthcare.gov world, the federal government is looking for a more agile approach to procurement that speeds up the process and lowers risk. One example has been a recent procurement from CMS. Traditionally, tens of millions of dollars would be at stake, an RFP (hopefully adequately documented) would be released, a formal, written Q&A period would exist, and hundreds of pages of response would be written and submitted, hoping it matched what CMS was looking for. Vendors would go for Orals if they made the cut, generally with no more information than what was previously released. Eventually, somebody would be selected; it may not be the best possible solution, but it was the best available based on the formal process.

That is changing. Agile procurements proceed in stages. Initial responses are more proof-of-concepts, limited to a dozen pages or less. Those that look promising are invited to present, discuss, and solution further with CMS in one-on-one CMS-vendor meetings. After an opportunity to interact with CMS, and fine tune the solution, a detailed proposal is created. This enable a well-informed response that meets the needs of CMS and avoids large-scale, multi-page efforts that amount largely to semi-informed shots in the dark.

The implications of an agile approach are immense: better, more targeted solutions that solve the intended problems while controlling the costs of the proposal process. Companies that have a good understanding of process and the ability to gather information from the client will do well. Those that were playing a numbers game by responding to everything and hoping to get lucky will lose to those who take the time to understand the client's needs enabled through the agile procurement process.

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