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 GovLoop.com, a social-networking site for federal employees.
Visitors to BetterBuyProject.com 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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