How the PIL Works
The PIL coaches teams, providing best practices, lessons learned, and samples from previous teams who have used similar innovative techniques. The PIL fully empowers the procurement team, especially the contracting officer (CO), in how and to what extent they may incorporate the innovations into their solicitation, evaluation, and award.
When teams bring a project into the PIL, we guide them through the innovation process. The PIL facilitates a brainstorming session, bi-weekly 15-minute sprint meetings, and Joint Application Modeling sessions to focus on specific issues or challenges. During one of the PIL bi-weekly sessions, the TSA Contracting Officer (CO) was describing the challenge of soliciting and awarding all four of these similar, but separate requirements at the same time, when someone suggested, “Well, why not combine them into one solicitation?”
The contracting officer was intrigued with this idea of “fusing” the many different requirements into one procurement. He started talking to people about this idea and everyone, even policy and legal people, were on board, and so the team began to detail what it would look like.
What is a Fusion Procurement?
A fusion procurement is different from bundling or consolidating requirements. When requirements are bundled or consolidated, the requirements are combined into one procurement that results in only one award to one vendor. By contrast, a fusion procurement is one where multiple similar requirements are combined into one solicitation, but that results in multiple stand-alone awards (one for each requirement), each with its own technical evaluation and best value trade-off.
Teams working with the PIL use innovative procurement techniques to address a specific challenge that they are facing. The PIL puts these challenges into four categories: increasing competition, lowering entry barriers, reducing the time to award, and increasing the likelihood of successful mission outcome.
Here, the TSA team was challenged by how long it would take to draft, review, and gain approval of the many supporting documents for these multiple requirements. For a small dollar procurement, you might need just a review from your supervisor. But for a requirement like this that exceeds $100 million, you might need a review by your supervisor, small business office, policy, legal, competition advocate, and head of contracting activity, if not more. This review process can take between a few weeks and a few months. Now multiply that by the many different documents that must be written to support any procurement: acquisition plan, market research report, small business form, determination and findings, evaluation plan, and solicitation, just to name the most common ones.
By combining the requirements into one procurement, the team was able to streamline this process. Instead of multiple acquisitions plans, they had one. Instead of multiple market research reports, they had one. This not only dramatically reduced both the workload of having to create multiple versions of basically the same documents but also saved time and effort spent sending them through the review and approval process.
There may be some documents that are needed for each individual requirement. For instance, a determination and finding in support of using time-and-materials contract type might need to be written for one of the requirements, but not required for another requirement that is firm fixed price. However, overall, there is a drastic reduction in the total number of documents to create, review, and approve.
Another benefit occurs during the solicitation question-and-answer period. Since you have multiple requirements fused into one procurement, there is only one question-and-answer period. You may receive questions for each of the individual requirements, but you won’t get the same repeated questions about the solicitation itself (e.g., administration-type questions). Additionally, even though you may have two, three, or even four sets of questions, you can combine all these into one set of answers and, if required, amend the solicitation just once.
You can speed up the question-and-answer period by providing a spreadsheet in the solicitation with your preferred question format. Within this spreadsheet, include a different tab for each requirement and label them (for example ATSS, ITSS, etc.).
As with any innovation, there were some challenges with using fusion procurements. However, all these challenges were easily overcome with a little bit of planning.
The first challenge was in developing the evaluation criteria. The team realized that when using fusion procurement, it made sense to use the same overall evaluation factors; otherwise the benefit of the innovation procurement technique was limited. Here, the team used 1) demonstrated prior experience, 2) management, planning, and technical approach, 3) personnel and staffing approach, and 4) price. However, you can imagine that a company’s demonstrated prior experience for testing individual scanners versus testing large baggage scanning systems would be a little different. Therefore, the procurement team drafted some elements of each factor that only applied to a specific requirement.
Having different elements of each evaluation factor for specific requirements was made easier by including them as individual attachments to the solicitation. However, this did present its own challenge – efficiently tracking and numbering the attachments. Here, the team overcame this issue by thinking about the challenge and planning for it. They devised a simple naming convention that clearly identified which requirement was associated with each attachment. For instance, “Attachment ATSS 5 – Phase 2 Questions.”
A final challenge was running multiple evaluation teams at the same time on the same schedule. All the proposals were submitted on the same day and evaluated basically on the same schedule. This was a lot of work for one CO to manage efficiently and it is something the CO would not repeat. Since this was his first time using the innovative technique, the TSA Contracting Officer alleviated the challenge by having a senior contract specialist help. However, for future solicitations, he decided that it might be best to set different due dates for different requirement proposal submissions within the same solicitation.
The TSA team decided to combine ATSS and ITSS together into one fusion procurement. OTSS and DTSS needed more time and were not ready, so they pushed forward with what they had. The team used many different innovative procurement techniques besides just fusion procurements. They had a phased approach with interview-style questions in Phase 1. Vendors that were among the most highly rated were advised to proceed to the second phase, which meant that only five of the seven ITSS vendors were advised to move forward, while all four of the vendors for ATSS were advised to move forward.
This was one of the techniques that the team was most worried about using because they were unsure whether vendors that were advised not to proceed would take the government’s advice. However, the team managed their risk by using best practices from other teams who had used advisory down-selects before. More than 115 teams coached by the PIL have used the advisory down-select innovation and the PIL has tracked that following these best practices resulted in 9 of 10 vendors taking the government’s advice, on average. Here all the vendors advised not to proceed took TSA’s advice.
Phase 1 was a short but meaningful submission that required the vendors to provide written responses to targeted questions that were most important to the program office around both requirements. The ATSS phase 1 submission was 12 pages and ITSS was 10 pages.
Phase 1 was the most important factor in the best value trade-off decision.
The solicitation stated that vendors would have approximately two weeks to prepare their Phase 2 submission. This was important so that vendors didn’t start to prepare and write their Phase 2 response before they knew whether they would be advised to proceed to the next phase.
Vendors were provided three days after receiving their advisory down-select notice to decide whether they wanted to proceed or not. This allowed capture managers enough time to discuss with their teams and approach their organization’s leadership about spending bid and proposal dollars against the government’s advice. When this time is shortened, vendors may respond that they wish to proceed because they don’t have enough time to make the decision.
In Phase 1, the solicitation also evaluated innovation as a factor. For ITSS, the solicitation asked, “Describe your experience with creating new capabilities and fostering innovation.” This was a critical piece for the program office as they wanted to see how vendors would bring innovations into TSA as they tested these scanning/inspection devices.
During Phase 2, the team used mission-focused evaluation criteria. As the name suggests, this factor puts the most emphasis on those areas that are most important to the mission. This avoids overly broad evaluation factors such as, “Please describe your technical and management approach as it pertains to all areas of the Statement of Work.” Using this factor, teams focus on what’s important to them, allowing vendors to respond with laser focus on those specific aspects. Using this innovation, vendors do not have to respond to every minute detail of the Statement of Work.
Finally, the team implemented several innovative procurement techniques to streamline their evaluation process. After each technical evaluator read a proposal, instead of writing an individual technical evaluation report, they came together as a group and achieved consensus in the meeting. This innovative procurement technique reduced evaluation time and increased communication among the team. It also reduced the number of reports that needed to be reviewed. A best practice is for the contracting officer to lead the on-the-spot consensus meeting with another facilitator sharing their screen and drafting the evaluation report; leaving the evaluators fully engaged in evaluating the proposal. This allows the contracting officer to review/approve the consensus report in the meeting and then immediately send it to the next reviewer.
To streamline the evaluation even more, the team also used confidence ratings. This is a three-tiered set of adjectival ratings that allowed a holistic evaluation of a vendor’s proposal. Using ratings of High Confidence, Some Confidence, and Low Confidence allowed evaluators to relate to the evaluation criteria more easily, which in turn allowed them to assign a rating faster and support it with noteworthy observations of the things that increase or decrease confidence.
The team used streamlined documentation to capture these noteworthy observations by writing them more akin to bullet points than to paragraphs, all during the same consensus-building meeting. This allows the team to document the discriminators without writing long, complex narratives. If something just met the solicitation requirements, it was not documented. It also allowed for easy editing. If a bullet needed to be removed, it was simply deleted without completely rewriting the paragraph. Finally, fewer words to read also meant faster reviews.
Award and Protest
While preparing the award documents, the contracting team noted that they had to be especially careful as they separated the requirements into their individual awards. For example, there were several solicitation clauses included for only one of the requirements, not both. The team had to read carefully to make sure they were included in the correct award document.
Using fusion procurements, as well as the other innovative procurement techniques, the team was able to award the $110 million BPA for ATSS and the $81 million BPA for ITSS in just 133 days after release of the solicitation. The team received three protests filed with the Government Accountability Office (GAO); two of which were dismissed and the last one denied. None of the protests argued against any of the innovations used, including the fusion procurement process. One of the protestor arguments was that TSA should have assessed separate and additional benefits for each question under Factor 1, Demonstrated Prior Experience. However, the GAO ruled that nothing in the Federal Acquisition Regulation or the solicitation required the government to assign benefits in a manner that corresponded to the number of questions provided and that it was reasonable to assign one benefit for the entire factor. (See Battelle Memorial Institute, B-420253, January 12, 2022.)
Overall, the team loved using fusion procurements to combine multiple requirements into one solicitation that resulted in multiple single-award BPAs. It saved a lot of time in reviews both before the solicitation was released and after evaluations were complete. The TSA team liked the innovative procurement techniques so much they used them again to successfully award BPAs for the other two requirements – OTSS and DTSS. But they cautioned that this is not a one-size fits all technique and it needs to be tailored to specific goals and requirements.
After teams being supported by the PIL make their award, the PIL team interviews vendors that participated in the solicitation, whether they won or lost. The goal of these interviews is to find out whether the innovative procurement techniques tested were effective or not. Here, vendors really liked the fusion procurement technique. They thought that “it was easy to figure out what belonged to what thing” and really appreciated that it sped up the overall award process.”
You can find more information about using fusion procurements on the Federal Acquisition Institute (FAI) Periodic Table of Acquisition Innovations (PTAI) – www.fai.gov/periodic-table, including the ability to download the actual solicitation used by the team (“DHS TSA ATSS RFQ”). You can also watch PIL Webinar #64 on YouTube to hear a team from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) discuss their fusion procurement journey.
New innovative procurement techniques are being created every day – by you! Whether you’re a junior contract specialist, a seasoned program manager, a contracting officer, or any of the other talented professionals who comprise our acquisition workforce, you can think outside the FAR to help meet the needs of your customers and ultimately the American public. And who knows, maybe you’ll come up with the next innovative procurement technique that is shared on the PTAI or featured on a PIL webinar. You don’t know unless you try. CM
Scott Simpson is Digital Transformation Lead, Department of Homeland Security, Procurement Innovation Lab. He drew all the illustrations for this article.