Developing the "Google Maps" of Federal Acquisition

March 2017
Topics: Government Acquisition, Government Agency Operations, Acquisition Management, Systems Engineering
Accelerating the learning curve for federal acquisition professionals is just one of the benefits of AiDA, MITRE's new digital platform. It explores how federal agencies could acquire systems and services faster and more efficiently.
(Video) AiDA explores how the federal acquisition environment can be transformed using digital strategies and tools.

What would you do if you were leaving tomorrow morning on a cross-country car trip but you only had a bunch of paper maps from AAA? You'd have to figure out the route as you drove, moving from state to state, and hope you could ask for directions along the way.

That's what federal acquisition professionals often feel like when they try to acquire complex systems such as information technology platforms or multi-billion dollar weapons systems.

The federal acquisition system is a complex enterprise. It can take many years to become proficient in it. But while acquisition staff are often encouraged to tailor the process to suit a particular product or service, most don't have the experience, knowledge, or resources to know how or where to begin doing so.

To make matters worse, many acquisition professionals can't turn to colleagues for help. The most experienced personnel are retiring, taking their irreplaceable knowledge with them. Within the next decade, half of the acquisition workforce will be eligible to retire.

That's one reason why MITRE's Pete Modigliani and Su Chang developed a digital platform called AiDA as part of MITRE's internal research program. AiDA, whiich is short for Acquisition in the Digital Age, will help the government workforce to navigate through the complex interchanges of the federal acquisition systems. AiDA (pronounced "aid-ah") provides the acquisition equivalent of turn-by-turn directions and optimized routes.

As Su Chang, a group leader in MITRE's Center for Acquisition Management and Science, describes it, "AiDA is the Google Maps of acquisition."

MITRE's Pete Modigliani and Su Chang developed AiDA to help federal acquisition specialists get the answers they need more easily and efficiently.

Delivering Capabilities Faster

Right now, acquisition takes a long time to master because knowledge resides in hundreds of static PDF policies, guides, and references. That information is then scattered across dozens of websites, many of which are hard to find and even harder to use.

Without experience or guidance to draw on, it's difficult to know how to tailor generic models to a particular acquisition. Plus, it's nearly impossible to keep abreast of constant changes to policies, procedures, and regulations. New tools designed to help often add another layer to the confusion.

The problem is especially acute when agencies contract for IT systems and services.

"The existing approach works adequately for products that have long development time and life cycles—such as weapons systems, ships, and aircraft," Chang says. "They will be used for years, even decades.

"But IT life cycles are much shorter than that. Right now, it can take seven years to deploy an IT system through the DoD acquisition cycle. The dynamic nature of information technology, such as changes created by cloud computing, make the traditional acquisition approach outdated. By the time a system reaches warfighters, it may already be obsolete."

AiDA seeks to demonstrate how a series of tailored acquisition models could replace the cumbersome one-size-fits-all model in use today. These new models provide interactive, targeted guidance on how to acquire a specific type of product or service. Tailored acquisition models are much easier to learn, and they eliminate the need for guesswork. As a result, they promise measurable savings in time, agency resources, and taxpayer dollars.

"Tailored acquisition models are ideal for smaller implementations that need faster responsiveness, like IT systems," says Modigliani, of the National Security Engineering Center, the federally funded research and development center MITRE operates for the DoD.

AiDA Takes an Agile Approach

The AiDA platform launched on March 20 with a tailored acquisition model for agile software development—a process that enables rapid iteration by breaking the development process into smaller, customizable pieces. Agile acquisition is the method of choice wherever there's a need to respond quickly or ensure that products and services continue to meet users’ evolving needs. It works off principles from a software process called "agile development." (To learn more, see "What Is Agile Development?" below.)

The AiDA team chose agile software development as its first tailored acquisition model due to the popularity of MITRE’s Defense Agile Acquisition Guide. Agile is a major departure from traditional acquisition processes. The challenges the workforce faces in applying agile practices to the development of capabilities provided a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of a tailored model. Over time, MITRE will add more models for common types of systems and services.

AiDA also helps acquisition professionals master the process faster by consolidating policies, guides, and information in one easy-to-use online interface. For example, it includes a digitized and interactive version of Department of Defense Instruction (DoDI) 5000.02, the policy that directs the Defense Acquisition System. The platform includes a resource repository with links to hundreds of helpful references and supporting material organized by functional domains in acquisition.

Agile is the Future of Government Acquisition

At a recent day-long conference sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.—at which Su Chang participated as a panelist—then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter noted that military competition today is characterized by the need to out-innovate one's adversaries.

"In the area of investment, it’s no longer just a matter of what we buy," Carter said. "Now more than ever, what also matters is how we buy things, how quickly we buy things, whom we buy them from, and how rapidly and creatively we can adapt them and use them in different and innovative ways."

"We're injecting agility and flexibility into our processes, because the world, its challenges, and our potential opponents are not monolithic, and we have to be just as dynamic to stay ahead of them," he added.

A Successful Start for a New Approach to Acquisition

AiDA aligns well with this philosophy. "Our approach is that acquisition processes need to change," explains Modigliani. "We need to look at how we do contracting and how we structure programs."

"We must develop a closer relationship between the government, the product and service developers, and the warfighters."

MITRE sees AiDA both as a platform to share our knowledge and as a technology demonstrator. Ultimately, the goal is to inspire federal agencies to rethink the way they integrate new systems and services into their operations. Modigliani and Chang demonstrated the prototype to several agencies who are eager to get AiDA into the hands of acquisition professionals as soon as possible.

Modigliani says, "We're not here to sell a tool, but to show how federal acquisition can operate in the Digital Age."

—by Paul Lagasse

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