Several years ago, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services began taking a more agile approach to technology. The agency hoped it would see more success by building systems in small, functional bites than by trying to build budget-busting projects that affect millions of people all at once.
After early successes implementing agile practices across the IT and business lines, the agency responsible for overseeing lawful immigration to the U.S. hit a wall, said David Simeon, chief of USCIS’ innovation and technology division.
“The challenge we ran into was the systems integrator market—the vendors you reach out to develop software for the government—had not kept up with agile,” Simeon told Nextgov.
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As an early government adopter of agile practices, Simeon said by 2014 the agency’s next step was the deployment of cloud-native applications but that required “a brand new way of thinking” and new talent to boot. Rather than undertake a traditional approach to procuring new technology, which could take 18 months or longer, Simeon said USCIS turned to another federal agency: the National Technical Information Service.
Through the Joint Venture Partnership program authority, NTIS is able to pair federal agencies with vetted private-sector companies and organizations that best meet their technology needs—and fast.
Less than six months after entering into an interagency agreement with NTIS to partner with Virginia-based Excella Consulting, USCIS rolled out its first cloud-native application. MyUSCIS, which runs in the Amazon Web Services cloud, hosts more than 700,000 monthly users.
Under a traditional acquisition approach, Simeon said myUSCIS and other subsequent projects the joint venture partnership now encompasses likely wouldn’t have worked out as well.
“The challenge with more traditional processes is that we were trying to do something we knew required a different way of doing business,” Simeon said. “We needed expertise that wasn’t there.”
USCIS was the first agency to make use of USCIS’ services. Others have since followed suit.
NTIS has brokered agreements ranging from $500,000 to $30 million—and about a half dozen opportunities are currently in the pipeline, Director Avi Bender told Nextgov. The fee-funded agency collects a small portion of the payment for each partnership it brokers.
NTIS’ value comes from helping agencies figure out precisely what they want, Bender said.
“Where we come in is where the problem is nebulous and hasn’t been clearly stated,” he said. “If they come to us and know what they want, we turn that business away.”
At that “nebulous” juncture, Bender said most agencies might put together a market survey or release a request for information to industry. But that takes months and may not result in anything fruitful.
After initial contact, NTIS helps the prospective partner agency derive a “problem statement” that clearly describes its challenges and needs. The three-to-four page document is then issued to 30 organizations and companies—called joint venture partners—vetted by NTIS. The venture partners have one week to examine the problem statement before they participate in a roundtable session with the agency, where they can ask agency officials questions about their goals and approaches.
Venture partners then have two weeks, Bender said, to come up with a proposal and presentation pitch, which are reviewed by a Merit Review Panel comprised of NTIS and sponsoring agency officials. The sponsoring agency can select one or more venture partners, Bender said, though none have opted to do so.
Whatever the sponsoring agencies decide, it’s based on solving the right problem, Bender said.
“It really is important for federal agencies to solve the right problem from the get-go, and what’s unique here is that we’re engaging the private sector in helping them formulate a problem statement,” said Bender.
“If we didn’t do that, agencies could issue RFIs and go on fishing exercises for 12 to 18 months, but meanwhile [their problems] continue.”
Tim Kropp, senior advisor to the chief data officer at the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, told Nextgov NTIS’ ability to deliver innovative iterative solutions to tech problems is its “greatest benefit” to federal agencies.
Kropp’s office provided the analytic horsepower behind several joint Justice Department/HHS health care law enforcement operations, including a $1.3 billion bust in July that led to more than 400 indictments.
“Innovative solutions are inherently iterative and procurement just isn’t,” Kropp said.
A joint partnership facilitated by NTIS provides HHS OIG’s data office with both technical solutions and business intelligence software that helps “marshal our own data for data-driven decision making,” and provides auditors, investigators and attorneys with better information to pursue cases. It was faster than a traditional RFP—a first deliverable out within three months of the partnership, Kropp said—and less risky, since there is “less risk of getting into something and realizing halfway through that this isn’t going to hit your nail on the head.”
However, agencies should look to NTIS for help “creating solutions, not maintaining them,” Kropp said.
“The thing I tell folks is that NTIS presents a great opportunity to get some solutions in, really get things running and show some value, but almost immediately, you have to start the process of deciding how you are going to maintain that value through traditional contracting procedures,” Kropp said. “You ought to be doing those things in parallel.”
NTIS’ Joint Venture Partnership program authority has proven successful thus far, Bender said, but he acknowledged fiscal 2018 “is a pivotal year for us.” Whereas every procurement official in government is familiar with traditional contracting mechanisms or the General Services Administration’s schedules, grants, grand challenges and other transactional authorities, NTIS is “not a known commodity.”
In the coming year, Bender aims to change that.
He wants NTIS to become a recognized brand, an agency with a reputation for understanding the government’s challenges with data, analytics and emerging technologies and that has the relationships, authority and know-how to help other agencies make sense of those things.
“The federal government has a number of ways to acquire services, so I’m not here to circumvent the [Federal Acquisition Regulations],” Bender said. “Now, there is something called the Joint Venture Authority for data. I want people to be aware that we’re an additional instrument.
“We are bringing Silicon Valley to government,” Bender said.