Acquisition Innovation and YouTube

I suppose you can tell a story that the government has made a lot of progress over the past decade or so in terms of acquisition innovation. For example, in the early 2000s, it used to be a bit of a meme that preparing government proposals required three-hole punch-ring binders with pages stapled in the top-left corner and a cottage industry of overnight-delivery couriers. But then, suddenly—and almost invisibly—the government was doing eGovernment and eProcurement.

eProcurement manifested in (appropriately) e-branded websites like eBuy and eSRS and emailed proposals. And eventually, eProcurement became... well, eProcurement just became procurement again. Then in the late 2010s, there were weird efforts to put contracts on the blockchain, or whatever. Today, we're in another hype-cycle of large-language-model-driven disruption of procurement. Perhaps AI will be more like eProcurement or perhaps it will be more like blockchain. Time will tell.

Of course, there have been other acquisition innovations outside of technology. Specifically, there's a story to be told about how government has adopted new methods of selecting vendors. In the early 2000s, if you pitched a multi-phase, advisory down-select competition as an acquisition strategy, you would have gotten blank stares.

True, FAR Part 15 contemplated the use of advisory down-selects as far back as the late 1990s, but, as one law firm observed, "it appears that its use has skyrocketed in the last few years. A quick review of GAO protest decisions discussing advisory down selects reveals that, of the 18 protests involving this evaluation method, only one predated 2020. This suggests that it is only recently that agencies have leaned into using this evaluation method."

Similarly, in the 2010s, the idea of using technical demonstrations for evaluation criteria was a novelty. Ask me how I know.[1] Today, though, technical demonstrations are relatively commonplace. We've talked about how AI will push the envelope in terms of oral presentations. But, more broadly, the use of technical demonstrations as a means of evaluating vendors based on their ability to actually deliver a thing has a long provenance in acquisition innovation.

Still, in the meantime, at the intersection of technology and acquisition innovation, we probably need to talk about a present-day reality: YouTube. These days, the government is looking for YouTubers.

To illustrate the point, here are a trio of decisions that GAO published last month related to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services awards to eight vendors on the Agile Collaboration and Modernization Endeavors (ACME) Blanket Purchase Agreement.

The ACME BPA, being at the vanguard of acquisition innovation, naturally involved a three-phase advisory down-select, going from 63 Phase I quotations to 36 Phase II quotations to 22 Phase III quotations to eight final awardees. Similarly, the ACME BPA involved a "technical challenge." As part of that challenge, vendors were required "to design and implement Amazon Web Services (AWS)-hosted application programming interfaces (APIs) to flag patients with chronic conditions impacted by disasters." This is definitely a far cry from staples-in-the-top-left procurement, and it is also totally normal, today.

Another requirement, though, was less normal:

Vendors were instructed to submit a design case study, consisting of one or more projects, demonstrating their "design capabilities by showcasing design work." Each vendor's case study was to place specific "focus on the process and artifacts developed." A YouTube video submission was to accompany each vendor's case study, and "demonstrate the products or services contained within the case study."

In other words, vendors needed to create a YouTube video. And, unfortunately for two bidders who protested, their videos left something to be desired.

For example, the government found that one vendor "presents personas in the video that are either difficult to read or appear to be incomplete." According to GAO, the government took screen shots of the videos to show that one vendor "left information frames empty or garbled." Similarly, the government said that another vendor's video was "professional-looking" but did "not reveal deeper insights specific to the project." Worse, that vendor's "YouTube video also shows a visual of its [DELETED], which is pixelated and unreadable."

Ouch. Them's the breaks. Obviously, I have not seen these YouTube videos, but what does it say that the losing vendors had pixelated or garbled videos when the lowest bid on these proposals was over $70 million. It tells me, I guess, that government contractors are not good with YouTube.[2]

In their defense, YouTube appears to be a relatively novel part of the modern govcon firm's toolkit. Before this trio of cases, there was only one GAO decision that mentioned YouTube: a decision from 2020. But outside of govcon, a lot of people apparently make purchasing decisions using YouTube. So, one potential conclusion to draw is that this latest acquisition innovation may be around for a while.

And yet. If one story is that (1) the government has made a lot of progress over the past decade or so in terms of acquisition innovation and (2) CMS's use of YouTube is evidence of that, a different story is (1) that the government has not made a lot of progress in terms of making the acquisition process better and (2) CMS's ACME BPA is evidence of that.

Why? How's this? Remember that the whole point of using technical demonstrations is to evaluate vendors based on their ability to actually deliver a thing. If developing a high-production-value YouTube video is now part of the price of admission for doing business with the government, that's not fundamentally different from requiring vendors to have an overnight courier to handle the binders and the staples. It's just more expensive.

Or, how's this? Remember how the ACME BPA was intended to bring "agile collaboration and modernization endeavors?" Well, here's the thing... The RFQ for the ACME BPA was released on June 21, 2021. It took over a year and a half—March 2023—to issue the initial awards, and more than a year on top of that—April 2024—to get through all of the protests. What could possibly convey agility and modernization more than a 1000-day cycle time? And folks wonder why small businesses avoid government contracting. But hey, YouTube, amirite?!

[1] Or just google "Agile BPA GSA."

[2] Maybe they are spending too much time using CapCut making TikTok vids? Nah, remember, this is govcon and we're in a Great-Power Competition. YouTube is the patriotic, and federally compliant, choice. Plus, could be worse, they could be on Reddit.

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