One of the leading initiatives of the Obama Administration was to usher in an era of transparency and accountability, which came full circle with the recent controversy of the Recovery.gov website contract award. This award, won by the Maryland firm Smartronix, Inc., has been under fire for what appeared to be a lack of transparency by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board (RATB), questionable contracting practices, and its whopping $18 million price tag.
The process to award this contract took an interesting turn via a discussion started on GovLoop by Mary Davie of GSA, who mentioned a post by Clay Johnson of Sunlight Labs on their lessons learned from attempting to bid on the Recovery.gov project. What is interesting about the post is that the company took a somewhat naïve approach to the contract, and thought their innovation would simply win out. What Sunlight found out was that the government contracting process has its own maze of checkpoints that need to be followed to be considered for an award, regardless of the solution being offered.
As I mentioned on GovLoop, I found the post by Mr. Johnson to be a very interesting one, as Sunlight’s experience sheds light on the government contracting process and how contracts are awarded. Further, the post also demonstrates needed platforms for introducing innovation, such as DoD's DefenseSolutions.gov mentioned by Ms. Davie. As my profession is to be an expert in the federal acquisition process and help guide my government customers through it, it is interesting to get perspective from others on the outside looking in. Several things jumped out at me from Clay’s post:
1) He is being pragmatic about the contracting process. He admits that he submitted a bid not having any idea what he was doing more or less, and lost out to firms that have marketed themselves and done all the upfront business development and relationship building. Of course the bid was competitive, but the government is a buyer like anyone else, and wants to know that the firms they do business with will perform, lower risk, and perform. Understanding that collaboration will help small businesses in the end will go a long way to not only help small businesses, but the government and ultimately the taxpayer though firms that have educated themselves on the process and have provided best value to the Government.
2) His firm was not qualified to do the work, but submitted the bid anyway and believes that their solution has given their company a foot in the door through awareness and branding. Although that may be the case, the opposite may also be true. I have reviewed many proposals in the past in various engagements from firms that do not answer the requirements and who clearly do not know what they are doing. If they were the Government, would they pick their firm? This often leads to resentment for wasting time and resources. If they had a unique, innovative solution for data management and knowledge exchange through open collaboration platforms, they should have gone another route and not wasted the Government’s time. They perhaps could have submitted an unsolicited bid through proper channels, or found a better way to partner or join a team interested in advancing the idea. I get emails everyday from people asking me for advice on whom to market their unique service that no one else has and will save the Government millions, etc. My response is always the same; prove it. I rarely hear back.
3) The good news certainly is that they have a better idea of the process. Furthermore, they understand that in this situation for this Recovery.gov website, it has turned into a “careful what you wish for” scenario, as both Smartronix, Inc. and the RATB have come under enormous scrutiny for the contract and the way it was awarded. I do not see how it will be possible to fulfill these requirements in the schedule and budgetary parameters set forth in the contract. My understanding is that the RATB fell into the perfect formula of setting things up for failure: poorly defined requirements, unrealistic schedules and budgets, and the coup de grâce, enormous political pressure. Not a recipe for success. I hope the Inspector General and Government Accountability Office are sharpening their pencils.
Learning how to fail is one thing, but learning from the failures defines success. I hope that Clay and Sunlight Labs understand the next time that the Government is a very sophisticated buyer, albeit not the most efficient one. Nonetheless, transparency can only help shed light on the process, and I for one cannot but help be see positive outcomes coming from this exercise. Further, sharing innovation can only lead to better solutions, so I hope this experience does not deter Sunlight Labs or other firms that have high-value solutions.