There’s been much discussion of late about federal government IT procurement. As a small business that has recently received our GSA Schedule and won our first contract as a prime contractor, we here at CivicActions have learned a lot in a short amount of time.

As a web services firm that has historically worked primarily with the nonprofit sector, we made a corporate commitment a year ago to focus on serving government. We knew what it would take to “get in the game,” and we’ve learned a lot getting there.

CivicActions CEO Henry Poole recently joined a great Reinventors roundtable discussion focused on government IT procurement and discussed some of this (video).

As a follow-up addendum to the roundtable, here is more perspective on the conversations we’ve had internally, what we’ve learned about the procurement process and thoughts on how it can be made better.

1. Make it easier for companies to get in the door

There are two components to making it easier for new companies to work with government.

The first involves the process of just getting registered to work with government. This isn’t a new issue, and it’s one we’re all too familiar with, and a solution offering is best suited for an entire post within itself.

The second component involves efficiently finding available opportunities. To date, large vendors are able to easily leverage deep sales benches to navigate the RFP opportunities across federal, state and local governments, all of which are entrenched in disparate systems, making it difficult and not worthwhile for small companies to spend the time and effort to pursue.

Fully realizing the potential of efforts such as OpenRFP and RFP-EZ that would consolidate government opportunities and make it easier to submit proposals would be the game-changer that would bring in more market-based bids to government, especially from smaller companies such as CivicActions.

2. Make Free and Open Source and OpenSaaS the default

By procuring Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) solutions, government eliminates licensing issues, has the power to make changes to their software, and is able to focus upfront on a more modular approach to development that empowers them to deliver much more efficiently and cost-effectively.

The move to FOSS is happening more and more and will continue to trend as agencies realize it is the most sustainable approach to IT operations. Agencies such as Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and General Services Administration, as well as the UK government, are realizing this and instituting formal FOSS first policies to back up their commitment. The UK government has even created an open source procurement toolkit to facilitate this effort.

Taking FOSS one step further, OpenSaaS (open source software as a service) needs to be on the minds of every public sector CIO and CTO, because it effectively eliminates the vendor lock-in dilemma every government faces. New companies like NuCivic are starting to offer OpenSaaS solutions specifically for government, such as the open data platform NuCivic Data.

FOSS and OpenSaaS solutions give government the best of both worlds when it comes to public service empowerment around procuring, coding, and hosting software.

3. Increase procurement transparency (and make it accessible and practical)

To date, the IT Dashboard has been the cornerstone of how we access and visualize the $80 billion of federal government IT spending, but it’s not working the way it should, so much so that current legislation calls for increased attention to its improvement.

As we move forward with procurement transparency and visibility, we should look to modern tools and companies that provide these types of services as examples of how government can best leverage these for practical and public solutions.

The startup SmartProcure is an example of how governments across the country can share procurement data to compare and evaluate how efficiently they are spending on related products and services. If this information was made public, we’d have an IT Dashboard that would satisfy both government procurement and open government advocates (and save taxpayers money).

By leveraging the IT Dashboard as more than just a open government tool, but also a means to empower our government procurement professionals, we go a long way in bringing clarity to technology procurement.

4. Adopt Agile

More and more, we’re hearing the call for agile in government, especially in the wake of Healthcare.gov launch, but we need to really begin talking about how to adopt it on a large scale.

Government needs to be proactive in purchasing agile as well as effectively implementing or managing and collaborating with IT vendors that are performing the actual services. This includes training for procurement, delivery and program officers. The success of future government IT projects will come down to how they are procured and effective government product owners.

Former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Vivek Kundra’s “25 Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal Information Technology Management” established a federal-wide TechStat review process that regularly evaluates troubled investments to make sure they are getting the appropriate attention they need.

While this is a great high-level practice and approach to getting ahead of potential IT project disasters, those who adhere to an agile development process know that the best government TechStat is an agile retrospective.

The good new is that TechStat is already moving this way.

5. Move to T&M, CPFF, FFP LOE and LH contracts

In order to procure IT services in an agile manner, agencies must move away from contract types that call for large-scale project specifications and long delivery timelines.

A recent ACT-IAC report, “Acquisition Best Practices to Procure Agile IT Services,” puts this nicely:

“With the rapidly changing nature of the initial releases of Agile projects, T&M, cost plus fixed fee (CPFF), firm fixed price level of effort (FFP LOE), and labor hour (LH) contract types can allow federal agencies and contractors the flexibility to meet the needs of Agile delivery. To help attain more predictable performance in a T&M, CPFF, FFP LOE, or LH contract, an emerging practice in government adoption of Agile IT is to declare a sprint zero, phase zero, or even a pilot wherein administrative hurdles are overcome and norms of team behaviors are established that enable the routine delivery of software.”

The future of government IT procurement will be built on open, agile systems and processes. As we continue our journey into the world of government contracting, we’ll continue to share more ideas and ideals as we continue getting our feet wet.