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Four steps to building a more innovative federal procurement culture

By Polly Hall
October 6, 2021

The federal acquisition community supports some of government’s most critical priorities—from advancing racial equity and modernizing our infrastructure to addressing climate change. To deliver on these priorities, federal leaders and agencies need to develop new ways for government to procure—or buy and acquire—the goods and services it needs.

The Federal Innovation Council—a group of current federal innovation leaders created by the Partnership for Public Service to forge a more innovative culture across government—has outlined four ways that agency leadership and the Biden administration can support this goal. Building on emerging innovations in federal procurement, these strategies encourage acquisition leaders to take smart risks and balance compliance with experimentation to help government fulfill its mission more effectively.

From risk avoidance to mission-first

The federal acquisition community has many tools to support mission delivery, from the acquisition authorities and flexibilities within the Federal Acquisition Regulation to specialized authorities such as the Other Transaction Authority or the Prize and Challenge Authority.

However, federal procurement remains process-focused and its culture does not yet fully support optional use of these authorities to rapidly acquire needed goods and services.

The complexity of the federal procurement system leads to risk-adverse contracting officers and acquisition teams. Scrutiny from the oversight community, a fear of bid protests—a challenge to the terms of solicitation or the award of a federal contract—and red tape prevent acquisition professionals from efficiently executing the procurement process and shifts their focus away from effective service delivery.  

Nevertheless, a more innovative culture in federal procurement has begun to emerge—one that encourages a mission-first mindset and empowers acquisition professionals to use new approaches that drive improved results.

Groups such as the Federal Acquisition Innovation Advocate Council, managed by the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy, help foster this culture of innovation. Other offices like the Department of Homeland Security’s Procurement Innovation Lab do the same by providing coaching resources that support federal acquisition professionals as they experiment with new ways to improve procurement processes. Industry-government resources such as the Periodic Table of Acquisition Innovations also ensure that learning is shared across and between the public and private sectors. 

Building on the foundation of procurement innovation

It is time to build on these efforts to create a more robust and permanent procurement innovation ecosystem across the federal government.

The Federal Innovation Council has created an Innovation Priority Agenda that outlines several ways that agency leadership and the new administration can support the federal acquisition community. The agenda recommends that federal leaders and the White House:

  • Champion the importance of a risk-tolerant procurement system. The oversight and scrutiny of federal procurement has increased as acquisition professionals have been required to work faster to deliver results in a constantly changing federal environment. It is critical for leaders across government to clearly communicate to the oversight community and the public why agile, adaptive and innovative procurement processes—grounded in integrity and ethics—are important.   
  • Allow procurement professionals to test innovative approaches before enacting new legislative or statutory regulations. Testing new innovations before embarking on a long and complex rule-making or legislative process will permit the federal acquisition community to learn what works best—and what does not—for both government and industry partners. This nimble strategy will permit procurement officials to experiment with and improve their acquisition processes before any regulatory changes are formalized, reducing red tape and improving outcomes through learning.
  • Work collaboratively to solve today’s acquisition challenges. At the macro level, collaboration across agencies and functional areas helps government better understand the cumulative impact of new regulations, policies, executive orders and laws on federal procurement. At the micro level, collaboration across an agency’s acquisition team and with industry partners enables government to more effectively plan, source, award and administer procurements.
  • Fund efforts to modernize the acquisition process. Various cross-agency initiatives focus on leveraging emerging technology to modernize procurement processes and systems. Federal leaders should work to institutionalize these efforts through formal funding and executive-level support. Working with more modern acquisition systems would enable acquisition professionals to focus on higher-value work that improves mission outcomes and fulfills important socioeconomic objectives of the federal procurement system, such as increasing domestic sourcing and advancing equity in federal contracting.

By building on current innovations in federal procurement, collaborating across agencies and with industry partners, and ensuring that innovators have a voice at the table, the federal acquisition community will be able to meet government’s biggest challenges—especially, and most effectively, if it is supported by leadership at all levels.

The Federal Innovation Council’s Innovation Priority Agenda offers several critical steps to achieve that goal. Learn more about the Innovation Priority Agenda in “A new innovation agenda for government.”

Polly Hall is the executive director of the Procurement Innovation Lab at the Department of Homeland Security.


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