The Virtual Procurement Office.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also has created more Internet tools so users now must keep track of more browser bookmarks and new acronyms. NASA has not only added new agencywide applications but also various NASA centers have been adding their own tools on an almost daily basis. For example, each Center has an online NASA procurement library, a NASA Acquisition Internet Service (NAIS) library, and a general procurement library. NASA Procurement Library on the Internet provides hundreds if not thousands of documents, links, and references. When one considers this abundance along with various initiatives such as 150 9000 certification, the expression "choked on documentation and starved for information" comes to mind.
In addition to Internet-related issues, several other factors motivated NASA to take a fresh approach to the contracting process. Downsizing over the last few years significantly reduced the contracting workforce, particularly in the support area. Not as many of the "old pros" remain to provide guidance, so the workforce needed a new way to share corporate knowledge. Contract specialists typically do a wider variety of tasks than they did in the past, so they needed a new way to help them come up to speed quickly. Automated systems outside the procurement arena threatened to overwhelm our contract specialists, so they needed a new way to effectively interface with these systems.
The Birth of VPO
The NAIS team responded to the need for a new approach to contracting and developed plans for an application that would provide a menu of all the features available under the NAIS banner and other useful sites. This matrix approach indexed all of the features and provided a status of tasks. The NAIS team leader (a former functional user) then added rules and other features to the matrix. Almost simultaneously, the NASA policy team was struggling with workforce reduction issues resulting in loss of expertise as it was trying to standardize support and procedures. Their solution was to create the Virtual Policy Office (VPO) that would supply rules, samples, and build tools (used to build programs or websites). The teams came together and designed a prototype to satisfy their objectives. The result was the VPO initiation project.
The VPO project was modeled on the organization of NAIS. Much of the success enjoyed by the NAIS can be attributed to the team structure and the consensus-building approach to automation projects. The entire service operates on a limited budget with volunteer civil service labor and funded contractor support. The team is led by a procurement analyst, and software developers actually report to the procurement organization.
To provide a familiar interface for contracting professionals, VPO was structured along the lines of the NASA Form 1098, Checklist for Contract Award File Content. This form is simply a file index similar to what most agencies use for contract files. For each row on the matrix (e.g., Market Research or Acquisition Plan), VPO provides the capability to include "Rules," "Samples," "Build Tools," and "Status" features. User acceptance of VPO has been extremely positive. It appeals to contracting professionals with all levels of experience. VPO has an easy-to-use feedback feature, and users have submitted many suggestions and corrections-and even some kudos.
The Rules Feature
The rules function does not provide the depth of information that the NASA Procurement Library provides but instead focuses on information essential to the operational contracting professional. For each item, it provides a direct link to FAR coverage, NASA FAR Supplement coverage, procurement information circulars, and NASA Center-specific guidance. In some cases, the rules function will also provide links to external Web sites such as the General Services Administration or Department of Labor sites. All information is Web-based and immediately available with the click of a mouse. It provides the procurement professional ready access to the key guidance needed within the context of the particular topic area.
The Samples Feature
Just as rules can overwhelm the contracting professional, the myriad Internet tools, forms, and formats for D&Fs, price negotiation memoranda and so forth also can become oppressive. VPO brings order to this maze. For example, NAIS has developed Web-based tools addressing past performance, consolidated contracting, and electronic simplified acquisition. The contracting professional can access these applications through VPO rather than by going to the individual Web sites. Because they are presented to the user in a familiar context, the user may even discover new applications.
Forms can be another nuisance to contracting professionals. Knowing which form to use, ensuring that the form is the correct version, and finding an electronic version of a form compatible with particular software is no small task. VPO provides up-to-date, accessible forms that address the vast majority of the contracting professional's needs. Finally, VPO provides templates for frequently accomplished tasks such as D&Fs, letters, and memos. These templates include information about the issues that need to be addressed in a particular document.
VPO is not designed to promote "cookbook" or "fill-in-the-blank" procurement. The contracting professional needs to bring a working knowledge of the task and requirements to complete the task successfully. VPO can, however, eliminate much of the time-consuming, unproductive effort involved in researching references, finding forms, and formatting documents. VPO is designed to help contracting professionals exercise--not supplant--their judgment.
The Build Tools and Status Features VPO can be used in two different modes: the "browse" mode and the operational mode. In the browse mode, a user can view all resources available through VPO. Although it was not specifically designed for research, it can be a very useful tool since it enables the user to quickly find resources applicable to a wide variety of procurement subjects. In the operational mode, the user inputs a purchase request number and uses a "status" button to track progress through a specific contract action. This enables users to know immediately what tasks on a given purchase request have been completed and which tasks remain. VPO will also indicate according to the type of contractual action (simplified acquisition, large contract, delivery order, etc.) which tasks are typically required for that kind of procurement.
One of the major concerns for any system is how to pay for sustaining its engineering. Generating interest in a new system is relatively easy; obtaining the necessary resources to maintain it is often difficult. The life cycle for software development has declined from seven years to eighteen months, so a software tool can become obsolete and inefficient in just a few months if not maintained. One potential problem with the VPO prototype was the need to continuously adapt software as rules, samples, or build tools changed.
Consequently, the team designed VPO to need minimal maintenance. The procurement policy staff can add or change the functions, rules, samples, and build tools. Similarly, procurement professionals at the NASA centers have the capability to maintain that center's unique rules and information. The resulting system is virtually maintenance-free and allows the people who control policy to control the software, without having to wait for new resources. Adding new requirements or changing existing requirements is easy and generally takes fewer than five minutes. Just as important, once the change is made, it is immediately available to all contracting professionals within the agency or center.
VPO currently supports new acquisitions and modifications and a grant or cooperative-agreement module is in development. We are now in the second phase of development and are considering significantly expanding what VPO can do.
One of the major challenges at NASA is that each center has unique systems that run on different platforms and in different languages. That challenge, combined with NASA's goal to purchase a procurement system for agencywide use, creates a complex problem. The information technology expert's answer to that problem is called the data warehouse. Although functional users love VPO, they are constantly complaining about duplication of data among the different build tools. They want what they call "fast fill" capabilities, the solution to which is the data warehouse.
A wizard (a software tool) is now being developed to create the data warehouse to complement the various build tools. For example, if the user wanted to complete a Standard Form 30 to modify a contract, then all or almost all of the standard data on the form would be automatically filled in from the database. This capability not only would simplify the process of issuing a modification but also should significantly reduce errors. When applied to the range of documents required to support a procurement, this should significantly reduce the administrative effort for a broad range of tasks.
Currently, VPO provides a number of tools, but the products of those tools (e.g., acquisition plans, D&Fs, forms) are not saved or maintained within VPO; rather, they are saved to the user's hard drive or network drive. Ideally, VPO capacities could be used to create an electronic file of the documents that is prepared or received for a given contractual action. This ability will greatly increase the accessibility of documents and remove the arduous task of establishing and maintaining paper files for every contractual action.
VPO can help significantly to keep requirements people apprised of the status of a purchase request. For example, when a purchase request (PR) is received in procurement, VPO could automatically notify the initiator with the date received and pertinent information regarding the contract specialist. As the PR is processed, VPO could automatically notify the the procurement personnel that key steps in the process have been accomplished. On simple procurements, for instance, VPO might notify the initiator that the solicitation has been issued, proposals have been received, selection has been made, and award has been confirmed. On more complex, lengthy procurements, additional steps in the procurement process could be added to the notification schedule.
The Future of VPO
The area of contract management is rife with opportunities for VPO. In addition to contract modifications, it could track deliverables and reports, significantly easing the contract management burden. Referring to the information submitted when the contract or modification is written, VPO could notify the contract administrator when deliveries are due and could provide semiautomatic e-mail notification to the contracting officer's technical representative, the contractor, or both. The system would automatically keep reminding the contract administrator at a specified interval until the deliveries were made.
VPO is certainly a work in progress. Early indications show, however, that the concept is answering a real need in the NASA contracting community.
About the Authors
TOM DEBACK is a procurement analyst with the Contract Management Division, Office of Procurement at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. DWIGHT CLARK is a computer systems analyst with the Procurement and Information Technology Department at Marshal Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. Send comments on this article to email@example.com.