It doesn’t have boiling flasks or people in white coats, but a lot happens in the Procurement Innovation Lab (PIL) operated by the Homeland Security Department. For an update, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the PIL’s new director, Katherine Crompton.

Interview Transcript:

Tom Temin This goes back to 2015. So this is kind of one of the more mature labs of its type in the government, I guess, fair to say.

Katherine Crompton Yes, fair to say. And I think if I remember correctly, I think it was the first lab which now has generated additional labs and other organizations, which is super exciting.

Tom Temin And in your years of procurement, do you have a lot of Digi-Badges?

Katherine Crompton Actually, fun story or maybe not so fun is, I actually come from the DoD. So 25 plus years in the DoD and I just started my DHS career here in February. So I am really catching up to the team on Digi-Badges and I have a wonderful team that when I step foot in the door says you will get them. So that and I think I’m at level two, so I’m not at level three, I believe I just hit my level too.

Tom Temin And we should, I guess, tell the listeners what a Digi-Badge is. I thought it was kind of cute when I saw on the website.

Katherine Crompton So what it did you badge is it’s kind of like a badge of honor. And I’m going to mess up the terminology of what they use, but it’s pretty much crawl, walk, run that that concept. And basically the first Digi-Badge is you’re walking you’re starting your journey and there are certain things you have to go through like attending a boot camp and I believe watching a webinar, it’s very, very small. Those first steps of what you have to do and then you walk. So you’re going to add the next level. You’re going to maybe start coaching where you’re going to get that you’re getting those skills in those techniques that really help you be an innovator in the procurement space and then level threes like the Master Digi-Badge where you’ve coached multiple projects and you’ve done some other things, so it’s really a badge of honor. Recently this year we started getting, it used to be internal to DHS and now we are actually giving it to external agencies or participants who come in and participate so that they can put it on their on their email and display it. And it’s fun to see when people on LinkedIn are like, I got my Digi-Badge or or it comes across as an email. It’s just super exciting.

Tom Temin All right, now the PIL, the Procurement Innovation Lab then really is a way of getting ideas from the components of DHS that have a procurement or acquisition challenge and the learnings then promulgated throughout the department.

Katherine Crompton Yes and no. So that is a goal and I think that’s a goal that you’re going to see in the coming years from the procurement lab is really gaining those ideas what the innovators on the ground are doing, because that’s really where these great ideas happen, great ideas that change the landscape of how we can procure. It’s happening at that operational level. So creating mechanisms from those who are in the weeds per se, of doing the work to help us better innovate. But yes, because the components are the ones who are bringing the projects to us and we are learning the lessons from them, from the challenges that they have gone through. And that’s helping us revive the innovations that we have. I think we’re up to 19 or 20 now. My team will probably shake their head if I got that number wrong. But again, I’m still in learning mode because I am new to the PIL, but that helps us revise what we are teaching. Then also we are supporting the periodic table of Acquisition Innovations, which is gaining those innovations of those techniques across from the federal space. So we’re helping to develop that and that’s where we’re really capturing a lot of use cases and user stories of innovations and techniques that they have used to help streamline and break down some of those roadblocks and barriers and procurement.

Tom Temin And of course, DHS operates under the Federal Acquisition Regulation, like most agencies do. Not all, but most of them. Would it be fair to say that innovation means using the FAR and the provisions in the FAR which are quite flexible if you know them all, to get things done, perhaps just exercise muscles people have never used or pull some tools out of that toolbox they weren’t even sure they had. But that can really get a job done.

Katherine Crompton Yes, that it does center around that, because contrary to popular belief, the FAR is extremely flexible and clearly states it clearly states in FAR part one that we should be innovating. It says in exercising initiative, government members of the acquisition team may assume if a specific strategy, policy or procedure is in the best interest of the government. And if it’s not addressed in the FAR nor prohibited by law, then pretty much do it. So a lot of people feel when the FAR is absent, then you’re not allowed to do it. Whereas it’s truly if the FAR is absent, then you do have that leeway to do it. So there is a lot of flexibility and it seems to be our own internal cultures, policies, procedures that we put on top of the FAR that makes it seem burdensome.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Katy Crompton. She’s director of the Procurement Innovation Lab at the Homeland Security Department. And every year there is a PIL boot camp. What happens there?

Katherine Crompton So we actually have multiple training opportunities. One is the boot camp, which is the original, that is the bread and butter of the PIL. That’s what we became known for, was offering that training, and it’s offered actually outside of DHS. It’s offered across the federal sector and now even to industry. So that teaches our first set of techniques. And then now we have the PIL bootcamp next level, which then gives you some lessons learned from those techniques that you got taught in boot camp. It also provides additional techniques and innovations that you can use. And then our third offering is the coaching clinic, and that is for individuals who want to start to coach teams and do things like the PIL and help mentor and support others to to use innovations within their own organizations. So those those are kind of the lanes of training that we offer. And it’s very exciting that we are also offering that to industry. Industry only offerings where they can come in and kind of it takes away that curtain from government procurement so that they can understand what we are doing, so they can better propose and so that they can do it more efficiently with less resources.

Tom Temin Yes, the implication here is that industry needs to be a part of procurement innovation.

Katherine Crompton Yes, they do. They are partners in that. And so many times we tend to try to sit across from the aisle from each other. And one of the things that we actually do as part of our post award interviews on every single project is we actually interview industry and get their feedback. What worked, what didn’t work, what didn’t you understand? How can we make this better? Because that really helps us develop strategies that eliminate those those roadblocks, that industry finds it hard navigating in the federal space, especially for those small businesses or those new entrants coming into the federal work space.

Tom Temin And it looks like the innovative procurement techniques fall under four basic areas lowering entry barriers, I presume, to industry, encouraging competition, shortening times to award and increasing successful outcomes. And you have a whole lot of different sub techniques under those are actual ways to get those done, such as group oral debriefings, for example, follow on production authority clauses. They get pretty technical. All of the techniques that you’re trying have those basic rubrics over them.

Katherine Crompton Yes, they do have those basic rubrics over them. So one of the things and one of the very popular techniques is confidence ratings. So we’re very used to seeing acceptable, unacceptable, marginal, highly satisfactory, exceptional. Those are kind of the the bread and butter evaluations. So what we have found is using confidence ratings of, Hey, I have confidence that you are going to be able to perform this or provide this product versus going through this very detailed, exceptional or unacceptable and providing that feedback and then using those confidence ratings down with an advisory down select. So once we’ve established that we have confidence in your offering, then we can provide a letter saying it’s highly likely you will be competitive in this next stage, or it’s highly unlikely you will not be competitive. And that gives industry an opportunity to decide if they want to continue to spend the resources or they don’t want to continue to spend the resources. It also provides enough feedback of how we evaluated them that then provides one better competition, because so many times industry tells us I didn’t have a chance, so why did you keep me in in the pool? So by giving them the choice that that’s giving them the power of what they want. Most of the time we find the industry appreciates that, and when they have been provided that feedback, they don’t waste their resources because their resources are just as valuable as our resources. So by by providing those techniques that increases our competitions, it makes it easier for industry and they’re going to have a better chance of outcomes because then we are really being able to focus on those entities that really can provide that product or support that mission with a higher confidence than that traditional methodology.

Tom Temin And your yearbook that is put out by the PIL every year lists a number of projects, some from DHS components, some from other departments and other agencies, PIL procurement projects, Triple Ps, I guess. And give us just a one or two examples of these projects that have used innovation and the results they got.

Katherine Crompton Yeah, sure, no problem. So in our last yearbook, one of the stories I’d like to highlight, which I think is really relevant for this time of year, because it’s the push to year end instead of the march to March, it’s the push to September 30th. And so many times in the procurement world, we are given last minute requirements. Whether fall down money, new things come up like we got to get it done and we’re given very constrained timelines. So on page 16 of the yearbook is the NPS project. Now granted, this was a simplified acquisition threshold project, but the techniques and how they approached it is completely relevant and valuable to any person with a year end requirement. They used oral presentations on the spot consensus confidence ratings and advisory down select to be able to do an award in 33 days. And probably most people think, oh, $250,000 and 33 days, that should be normal. But it’s very surprising how sometimes those $250,000 procurements take us a lot more time than people would expect. So that’s just a really great highlight of how they use those techniques in a time crunch to get it done. And I think that’s very, very relevant considering where we are in this time of year. Another one is the one that we presented this year at the NCMA World Congress, which was the Fusion procurement and where that is, it’s not consolidation, it’s not bundling, but it’s where you take multiple requirements and put them in a single solicitation that allows you to streamline your documentation, your reviews. It streamlines it for industry because it’s one stop shopping and they can propose on all, they can propose on one. And there’s multiple awards that come out of that. So it allows us to combine our resources not only on the industry side, but the government side as well, to kind of break down those barriers and make it easier to propose. Those are two highlight projects that we have in the yearbook and that we have gone out and spoke to industry and government about.

Tom Temin By the way, getting back to the project of the National Park Service that you mentioned. Yes, it was not a giant procurement at a couple of hundred thousand dollars, but it was something that you can see could easily get hung up because it likes to make interactive displays and presentations in a particular national park building setting in one of the remote parks. And those things can run into all kinds of artistic, cultural, language, you name it, types of roadblocks. So I think just to underscore the fact that they did get it done quickly using those techniques is important. And you said 25 years in the Defense Department, what’s it like coming over to a place like DHS, which has law enforcement elements similar to somewhat to some elements in DoD, but it must feel like a totally different lake.

Katherine Crompton It is definitely a totally different lake. It’s interesting from a mission perspective, because in the DoD, our support is in support of the warfighter. And I have two children who are currently serving in the military. So that so that’s a very personal mission. Right. And it’s support the war fighter, make sure they’re safe, make sure that they have the food, the resources, everything they need to be able to protect our country and serve abroad. Coming over to DHS, it’s just as important of a mission, but it touches more of my day to day. So that’s been the most humbling part of coming over to DHS is walking through an airport. I’m seeing TSA and the mission that they support. Living now in the Washington, D.C. area, all the federal law enforcement and seeing how FLETC touches that, seeing how FEMA, when there are hurricanes, go out and touch the citizens day to day. Immigration, getting visas for people to visit our country, every single one of these mission touches as day to day as a citizen, so it’s it’s very humbling and it makes it that much more important to support, because if we’re able to support these missions, it ties into the DoD mission because every single warfighter is a citizen of this country. So we are in essence, still supporting them.