White House directs agencies to launch acquisition labs to foster innovation

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The White House announced an initiative on Wednesday to speed up establishment of new Acquisition Innovation Labs for federal agencies. The new labs will provide a clearer pathway for agency acquisitions, particularly for IT investments.

"The acquisition innovation labs, or similar mechanisms, agencies stand up should make IT a focus area, start small and scale over time, be made available for use by the workforce at large, and seek vendor input," said Anne Rung, administrator for federal procurement policy, in a White House blog post.

The initiative reflects a commitment the White House made in October 2015 (pdf) to foster a culture of innovation at federal agencies. To that end, the White House laid out five steps for agencies to stand up their acquisition labs:

  1. Appoint an Acquisition Innovation Advocate, or AIA, by March 31, 2016. Each AIA will encourage their agency to test new ideas, seek better ways of executing existing practices and work with the Office of Management and Budget and other agencies to share best practices and lessons learned

  2. Ensure each agency has innovation labs or similar mechanisms to provide their workforce with a pathway to test, document new acquisition practices and execute those practices to achieve better results for the taxpayer. The administration provided more guidance in the structure of these innovation labs in a memo on the initiative (pdf), but also noted that agencies have "wide latitude" in structuring each of their labs

  3. Consider participating in the digital acquisition innovation lab pilot that OFPP, US Digital Service, 18F Consulting and a team of Presidential Innovation Fellows are launching. The pilot will help agencies identify cross-functional support and receive coaching on digital services acquisition. In return, they would dedicate a team to provide support for other agency IPTs​

  4. Participate on the AIA Council, which OMB will convene. This will be an opportunity for AIAs from different agencies to discuss their respective IT-related products and exchange information with USDS, PIFs and 18F Consulting

  5. Contribute to the Innovation Hallway on the Acquisition Gateway. By sharing as much information as possible in the Acquisition Gateway, the White House hopes it will become a "one-stop source" for guidance on innovative solutions. The administration encouraged agencies to offer continuous learning points for acquisitions professionals, and to develop and post case studies to the gateway

The new initiative is modeled in part on existing federal acquisition labs like those at the Health and Human Services and Homeland Security departments. Rung noted that after creating the DHS acquisition innovation lab, the department was able to cut procurement lead time for its extensive Einstein project by more than half.

Meanwhile, the HHS innovation lab, called the HHS Buyers Club, earned FierceGovernmentIT's "Fierce 15" award in 2014 for its procurement initiatives. Calling Mark Naggar, the program manager of the lab, the "boldest, smartest contract specialist there is," the award noted the agency's success taking calculated risks to foster innovation.

The Buyers Club developed guides for other agencies to follow this model, a key development for the new initiative. "Agency leadership must recognize that the greatest catalyst for innovation rests inside the agency and its willingness and ability to embrace a culture that continuously encourages new ideas as well as rethinking of existing practices," Rung and U.S. CIO Tony Scott said in the policy memo.

For more:
- read the White House blog post
- download the full initiative memo (.pdf)
- learn more about the HHS Buyers Club

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Mark Naggar, program manager of the HHS Buyers Club, Health and Human Services Department