By Steve Kelman

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GSA tries wiki approach to develop RFPs

GSA Administrator Martha Johnson announced yesterday that her agency will experiment with using wikis to help develop the requests for proposals (RFPs) on two new acquisitions.

The idea for this actually emerged from the dialogue on procurement innovations GSA has conducted (in cooperation with the National Academy of Public Administration) on the Web at a site called BetterBuy.  At the BetterBuy website, there is now a link presenting information on two acquisitions that are in the development stage -- one for hosting the Data.gov website and the other (unexplained and as yet not up at the site) for an acquisition called Clearpath. GSA is asking members of the public to provide advice for features and performance requirements for these applications, as well as other elements of the RFPs.  Specifically, GSA is asking for members of the public to point out mistakes and engage in "meaningful technical debate."

Given the endemic problems government has developing good requirements for IT acquisitions, the idea of drawing on the public for suggestions is in principle a great one.

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It will be interesting to see whether this works in practice, however. It is fitting that this effort is appearing just as Jim Williams is retiring as commissioner of the GSA Federal Acquisition Service,  since in the 1990s Jim (then at the IRS) coined the phrase "full and open communication" (a play on "full and open competition") to describe a policy (then somewhat revolutionary) of engaging industry more to get ideas and suggestions in advance about RFPs for upcoming procurements.

The kind of advice GSA is seeking from the general public is thus the kind of advice the government has solicited from potential bidders for a while. Asking for the advice to put out there for everyone to see, as GSA is doing, actually creates problems when done for potential bidders specifically, because companies are loathe to say anything meaningful for fear of revealing information about their bid strategies to competitors.

This shouldn't be an issue for the general public, but here the issue is how many members of the public -- beyond companies thinking of bidding on the contract, who already get to make suggestions without this new wiki --  are likely to have the knowledge or interest to become engaged in the arcana of requirements for a speific procurement.  A procurement related to Data.gov is a great choice for piloting this approach, since it's an application with a lot of general interest and excitement.  If meaningful public input can't be obtained on this one, it is hard to imagine that it could be obtained on many, or any, other procurements.

GSA is to be applauded for trying this. I hope to follow in the blog the fate of this effort and to see what happens.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Mar 26, 2010 at 7:26 PM

Reader Comments

Wed, Apr 7, 2010 Mike Derrios Arlington, VA

I think Wiki's are a great idea. I'm also a believer in using Crowd-sourcing as a means of conducting market research. It coincides with the 'transparency-move' happening in the federal government today and would allow those involved in developing requirements to get a useful information exchange from industry, academia and private citizens. In my humble opinion Crowd-sourcing can yield better results than a static RFI. And by doing this type of due-diligence upfront it could expedite procurement lead times on the backend. If it's done properly procurement integrity can also be preserved (which I know has been an issue with previous attempts to use it). Innovation rocks!

Wed, Mar 31, 2010 Steve Kelman

Thoughtful comment, and I'd love to hear a reaction from Mary Davie on this. My reaction is that, within the context of end user needs (which have hopefully been reflected in the draft document that goes out on the wiki), commenters -- if they have the interest and knowledge to do so -- may be able to point out better language for meeting the requirements, perhaps for example without ambiguities the government folks may not have noticed in their own documents, or performance metrics for the requirements, etc.

Tue, Mar 30, 2010

Boy are folks confused. Requirements development is for the "end user" of the solution. Gov't is regularly accused of not knowing what it wants to buy when it buys things and this effort sure proves that. Wiki's, and other forms of public input, ought to be left to refine those requirements once they are determined by the end user, informing the end user of what's available or possible. There are plenty of people, many in FAS, who'd buy anyting that looks new and shiny, whether we need it or not, whether once purchased we can use 1/10th of its capacity. Steve, promote reforms that add value to the process, not add process to the process.

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