Better Buying Through Social Media?

A new initiative invites suggestions to improve federal acquisitions online.

Robert Brodsky
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Robert Brodsky
Nov. 6, 2009, 7 p.m.

Do you have an idea for im­prov­ing the gov­ern­ment’s $528 bil­lion-a-year ac­quis­i­tion sys­tem? The Gen­er­al Ser­vices Ad­min­is­tra­tion wants you to share your plan with the world on an open web­site. It might even use your sug­ges­tion in a fu­ture pro­cure­ment.

Last month, GSA joined with a pair of private-sec­tor non­profit groups, the Amer­ic­an Coun­cil for Tech­no­logy-In­dustry Ad­vis­ory Coun­cil and the Na­tion­al Academy of Pub­lic Ad­min­is­tra­tion, to launch the Bet­ter Buy Pro­ject.

The ini­ti­at­ive is an ex­per­i­ment in how rap­idly ex­pand­ing so­cial-me­dia tools — such as Face­book, Twit­ter, and wi­kis — can be used to re­form the no­tori­ously stodgy gov­ern­ment pro­cure­ment sys­tem. Ap­pro­pri­ately, the idea was con­ceived through on­line con­ver­sa­tions on Gov­, a so­cial-net­work­ing site for fed­er­al em­ploy­ees.

Vis­it­ors to Bet­ter­BuyPro­ can re­gister, either by name or an­onym­ously, to post sug­ges­tions for mak­ing the fed­er­al ac­quis­i­tion sys­tem more par­ti­cip­at­ory, trans­par­ent, and col­lab­or­at­ive. Par­ti­cipants will also vote on the best ideas, and GSA of­fi­cials are already eval­u­at­ing the top-rated sug­ges­tions for pos­sible use on an up­com­ing con­tract.

“We are look­ing for any and all ideas,” says Mary Dav­ie, GSA’s as­sist­ant com­mis­sion­er for the Of­fice of As­sisted Ac­quis­i­tion Ser­vices. “There are so many people out there with good ideas to of­fer.”

Ini­tially, the pro­ject has fo­cused on the pre-award stage of the con­tract­ing pro­cess, when the gov­ern­ment de­term­ines what it wants to buy, how much it should pay, and what types of com­pan­ies should sub­mit bids. The web­site is di­vided in­to three se­quen­tial ac­quis­i­tion phases: mar­ket re­search and re­quire­ments, in which the buy­er’s needs are re­fined; pre-so­li­cit­a­tion, when the agency meets with the private sec­tor to dis­cuss po­ten­tial solu­tions; and so­li­cit­a­tion, the point at which the gov­ern­ment of­fi­cially no­ti­fies in­dustry of its pur­chase plans and seeks bids.

The pro­cess, al­though well-defined in a host of fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions, is rarely trans­par­ent and hardly col­lab­or­at­ive. Un­less an out­sider is deeply im­mersed in the ac­quis­i­tion sys­tem, it’s dif­fi­cult to find timely data on what the gov­ern­ment plans to pur­chase and from whom. Mean­while, agen­cies — and even some in­trade­part­ment­al of­fices — of­ten fail to share in­form­a­tion, even when buy­ing sim­il­ar goods and ser­vices.

The Bet­ter Buy Pro­ject’s de­velopers hope to im­prove the pro­cess us­ing the tools of Web 2.0 to en­able vir­tu­al in­ter­ac­tion on pur­chases. One par­ti­cipant, for ex­ample, sug­ges­ted that rather than trav­el­ing halfway across the coun­try to meet with po­ten­tial con­tract­ors, agen­cies could set up Web chats or live video streams. An­oth­er pro­posed us­ing Twit­ter to up­date the status of any pro­cure­ment in ex­cess of $10 mil­lion.

Al­though some of the sug­ges­tions may seem like no-brain­ers, re­forms are not al­ways easy to put in­to prac­tice in the highly reg­u­lated world of fed­er­al pro­cure­ment, says Es­th­er Bur­gess, who chairs an ac­quis­i­tion ad­vis­ory group at the Amer­ic­an Coun­cil for Tech­no­logy-In­dustry Ad­vis­ory Coun­cil. “These ideas may seem simple and in­tu­it­ive on their face, but the im­ple­ment­a­tion may ac­tu­ally be much more com­plic­ated.”

Peter Tuttle, a pro­ject par­ti­cipant/mod­er­at­or, says that the key to get­ting the ac­quis­i­tion work­force, which is older and more ex­per­i­enced than the so­cial-me­dia audi­ence, in­volved is to show how new on­line tools can im­prove ef­fi­ciency. “The ac­quis­i­tion com­munity is be­ing asked to do more con­tract modi­fic­a­tions and be­ing told to pro­duce more,” says Tuttle, a seni­or pro­cure­ment policy ana­lyst at Dis­trib­uted Solu­tions, based in Re­ston, Va. “So if this is per­ceived as something that will make it easi­er to get their jobs done, these tools could be very well re­ceived.”

In the first four and a half weeks, 56 par­ti­cipants offered ideas, with more than twice as many oth­er people mon­it­or­ing the activ­ity through Twit­ter up­dates. The web­site will be up for an in­def­in­ite peri­od, ac­cord­ing to Dav­ie. “We are look­ing to cre­ate a pro­cess,” she says, “not only to make the [pro­cure­ment] pro­cess more par­ti­cip­at­ory and trans­par­ent but to get bet­ter res­ults.”

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