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FLASH winners want to salvage what's good from cancelled contract

When the Homeland Security Department cancelled the $1.5 billion FLASH procurement for Agile software development because of documentation and other problems, it was a devastating blow to the 11 small businesses that won spots on the vehicle.

Now many of those 11 have reached out to DHS in an attempt to salvage some of the good things they saw in the procurement.

They have written an open letter to Soraya Correa, DHS chief procurement officer, to say thank you and to encourage DHS to not abandon the innovative approach it took with FLASH.

DHS cancelled the FLASH contract after protests by losing bidders uncovered problems with how the procurement was run. Among those problems were evaluation documents altered after award, poor price evaluation reports, and issues with video quality of the technical challenge portion of the evaluation.

Faced with these problems, DHS cancelled the contract saying that requirements had changed so they need to start from scratch.

In the letter from the eight winning bidders, they do not point fingers or rehash the problems. In fact, the letter is quite positive. They are encouraging DHS to not abandon the approach they used with FLASH.

I spoke with Rahul Pandhi, managing member of LinkTec LLC, one of the signers of the letter. LinkTec is a joint venture formed by CollabraLink and Sevatec. Other signers include Navitas Business Consulting, Ad Hoc LLC, Innovations JV LLC, SemanticBits, STSI, Karsun Solutions, and SimonComputing.

Pandhi told me FLASH was a transformative contract for contractors and for government. DHS used what he called an Agile procurement process that relied on demonstrations and a technical challenge to make the award.

The government has used this approach on smaller contracts but never something on the scale of FLASH.

DHS asked for three-minute videos from bidders on their process to get initial feedback from DHS. There was little emphasis on written proposals. And the big one was the technical challenges DHS issued.

Pandhi explained to me that each bidder sent a technical team to DHS for a day. They were given a use case and then present their solution to DHS five or six hours later. This is where DHS got in trouble for the poor quality of its videotaping to capture and later evaluate how the individual teams performed.

The problem with the videotape quality could be fixed but there is nothing wrong with the technical challenge process DHS used, Pandhi said.

“It is a show me approach as opposed to a tell-me approach,” he said.

It also fits with the nature of software development. The traditional procurement process of submitting a lengthy technical proposal that can be up to 100 pages long works well for building something very tangible like a ship or plane.

“But that doesn’t match the model of software development,” he said.

A lengthy written technical proposal “doesn’t mean you can actually do it,” Pandhi said. “With the challenge you have to show them you can do it.”

The approach DHS used with FLASH also gives smaller businesses, which may not have the proposal writing skills and related infrastructure in place, a more level playing field to show the government their capabilities, he said.

After DHS cancelled the procurement, the winning bidders were beyond disappointed. “When news of the cancellation broke, we were shocked and disappointed, a ‘punch in the gut,’” they wrote to DHS.

But it wasn’t long before the companies began talking to each other, Pandhi said. And the would-be competitors decided to cooperate to encourage DHS and other agencies to embrace the FLASH procurement process and not abandon efforts to bring innovation to how the government buys.

“We all felt FLASH was a move in the right direction so how do we push the dialogue forward,” he said.

The letter is just a first step. What the group wants is to get a meeting with DHS to conduct what they call a “sprint retrospective.”

That is a play on the Agile development process that relies on short “sprints” to develop a product or feature. At the end of each sprint there is a retrospective meeting to discuss what went well, what didn’t, gather other feedback and decide how to improve going forward.

DHS’s reaction to the letter has been positive, so Pandhi said he is optimistic that a meeting will happen.

“It is incumbent on us as industry to collaborate with government to move forward on how best to get the work done,” he said.

The problems with FLASH can be corrected but the overall process was sound and the companies signing the letter don’t want that lost. They want more agencies across the government to use the FLASH approach.

“We don’t want the problems to stifle the momentum, we shouldn’t let that happen,” Pandhi said.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Jul 27, 2017 at 7:23 AM

Reader Comments

Fri, Aug 4, 2017 Steve Kelman

Nick, great post! This approach is a real step forward for federal procurement. I am disappointed at some of the ill-willed reactions.

Tue, Aug 1, 2017

I don't see why this approach is better than a written proposal. You will never deliver your key personnel on the demo. The people work on the task order will never be the ones in the demo. We all know that. The "agile" approach to award those small business without documentation is essentially a fraud.

Mon, Jul 31, 2017

I agree with the other commenter here. This procurement was a FRAUD plain and simple!! In my neighborhood the word we would use for writing a letter like this is "cajones". Takes real stones to write a letter praising a procurement where the evaluation records were changed post hoc and it took a protest to bring that insanity to light. I think the letter was a juvenile attempt to try to earn points with DHS. Could you imagine any of the big guys sending a note like this? Small time approach by a cadre of small firms. They have a lot to learn.

Fri, Jul 28, 2017

Nick - with all due respect, this is a joke right? This procurement was riddled with fraud and malfeasance and these small firms have openly "brown nosed" DHS about what was a terribly executed procurement. Just because they toss the words agiile in doesn't make this procurement a success. Did anyone read the report that prompted the cancellation of this train wreck solicitation? You need to post that in concert with the article. The letter these firms sent basically should say "thank you for doctoring the evaluation records to allow us to win" because that's what happened as noted in the government's own findings. Hats off to DHS? Laughable. These guys should be ashamed of themselves for penning this note and I am aghast that it's garnering press in light of what happened.

Fri, Jul 28, 2017

If this is a SB award enabling large businesses to compete under JVs defeats the spirit and intent of the process. Make such "show me" tech demos open to all businesses, with a provision that staff in the demo will be staffed on an awarded task order

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