Exploring Homeland Security’s Procurement Strategy

This post first appeared on IBM Business of Government. Read the original article.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

A Conversation with Paul Courtney, Chief Procurement Officer, U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Recently,  Paul Courtney, chief procurement officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security joined me on The Business of Government Hour to discuss the mission of his office, DHS’ procurement and acquisition strategy, operational improvements, efforts leveraging emerging technologies, and his insights on leadership. The following is an edited excerpt highlighting key topics we discussed. 

On the Mission and Management. The work we do matters and is vital to enabling the Homeland Security mission. My office supports all the components of DHS with their procurement and acquisition efforts. We develop, implement and oversea the department’s procurement policies, programs, and standards. We deliver acquisition workforce training for the entire 15,000 acquisition workforce within DHS. We provide procurement related support and oversight across DHS and are considered the subject matter expert for agency leadership for all things procurement.

I’m the chief procurement officer for department. The DHS secretary has delegated me senior procurement executive (SPE) with authority to designate the head of contracting for each component with DHS. In the capacity SPE, I’m responsible for the governance, oversight, integration, and administration of the procurement function across the department. To give you a sense of the scope of our operations, in fiscal year FY23, we obligated $28.6 billion across about 62,000 transactions. We achieved a very impressive competition rate of almost 80% – meaning we had competition for most of our procurement action – which is great. We do this using a suite of enterprise and government wide strategic sourcing best-in-class contract vehicles. We deliver a highly successful small and disadvantaged business utilization program. We do a phenomenal job here receiving A’s and A+ within the Small Business Administration’s report card. We also do a good job developing and retaining a highly skilled acquisition workforce. We conduct meaningful communications with our industrial base, Congress, and other federal agencies, including the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), and Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFFP). We provide access to high quality systems and tools for streamlined electronic contract writing. We promote procurement innovation. In fact, I think we’re one of the leading agencies across for the federal government in procurement innovation. 

On ChallengesThe first challenge concerns fiscal constraints – being asked “to do more with less”.  As you know, we continue to operate under a Continue Resolution (CRs) that keeps funding at the FY23 and active levels. With this as our backdrop, the complexity requirements of our procurement continue to evolve as AI becomes more prominent. Along with increasing complexity of procurements, we also see a tremendous amount of active in third and fourth quarter. We are recording this in the month of March, and we’ve obligated a little over $5 billion over 19,000 transactions. This means that the next two quarters are going to be very busy, but we’re ready for it. 

The second challenge is to remain agile and responsive to emerging complex requirements. This means engaging in meaningful collaboration with DHS as early as possible. Collaboration early is just crucial, so we can recommend procurement strategies and provide the most flexibility regarding pricing, timeliness, and competition. For example, my office has worked extensively with the department’s Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) to establish a cyber hygiene assessment framework as a mechanism to ensure contractors have established such practices to reduce risk to DHS’s infrastructure and information. These partnerships have become even more critical during times of national. emergencies. It’s just imperative we engage our partners quickly to find solutions. The next challenge is making sure we stay on top and ahead of what is going on in the world. We can’t work in a bubble. As you know, we need to be aware of changing, shifting priorities so we can respond to the department’s acquisition needs quickly and innovatively. 

On Strategy. We want to engage with the industry as early as possible to facilitate collaboration and spark innovation. My office encourages industry engagement through a variety of methods. We do Micro-Reverse Industry Days (Micro-RIDs), which give the procurement workforce the opportunity to hear directly from industry on how to make process adjustments that improve outcomes and strengthen the procurement process. We do acquisition innovation roundtables and specialized training sessions as ways for us to engage with the industry. We’ve launched an internal industry engagement training program and published a supplemental two-page guide titled, A Practical Guide for Program Managers/Requirements Owners When Engaging with Industry. This guide is focused on encouraging early industry engagement before and during the requirements development process, with tips and best practices to increase the effectiveness of early engagement. Our plan is to continually enhance the internal training that highlight the many ways we can leverage industries expertise in support our mission. I’d like to plug our upcoming strategic industry conversation which you’re holding in person in Washington, DC on March 28th. At this event, senior leaders including the acting DHS deputy secretary will discuss upcoming priorities and emerging needs that can industry better support the department. I encourage everyone interested in attending to visit sam.gov and please register. 

Our strategic plan covers 4 fundamental priorities that focus providing effective support across the entire acquisition cycle. 

Priority one is to prepare and empower our people to excel. We want a team that’s empowered to bring creativity, innovation, and critical thinking abilities to our work at DHS. This priority focus on attracting and maintaining a highly capable team; inspire a culture of empowerment and innovation; maximize individual and team potential; and fortify confidence to enable creativity and critical thinking. 

Priority two is to energize partnerships through collaboration. It is at the core of what we do and how we do it. This priority includes evolving cross organizational relationships, partnerships, and coalitions; expanding the use of technology to enable greater communication, collaboration, and networking; improving procurement outcomes through meaningful exchanges with industry, academia, and other institutions; and advocating for DHS interests through proactive and transparent engagement with oversight entities. 

The third priority is to inspire innovation to enhance mission capability. This priority focuses on our ability to bring energy and innovation to the work we do, balancing tools and resources to get us the outcome we desire. It involves challenging the status quo to enable mission readiness, expanding access to innovative ideas and solutions, and increasing new entrants to the DHS industrial base. This entails creating and adapting solutions that enable DHS to keep pace with evolving threats; cultivating a culture that assumes and manages acceptable risk; bolstering early acquisition planning and cross-functional team collaboration; and welcoming perspectives and contributions from our diverse partner community, including small businesses. 

The final priority is to enrich the DHS procurement experience, which encompasses fortifying trust in the DHS procurement brand; challenging perceived boundaries of our traditional role; serving as flexible business advisors; and measuring the quality of the procurement experience. This involves streamlining policies and processes to promote efficiency and flexibility, embracing collaborative oversight, and using data and emerging technology to optimize outcomes and customer experience.

On Developing the AI for Market Research Tools. We partnered with over 10 federal agencies and three contractors to develop AI for Market Research Tools using our Commercial Solutions Opening Pilot Program (CSOP). This is a great nontraditional way to find vendors to solve problems. AI for Market Research Tools used open-source data from USASpending.gov, SAM.gov, the Federal Procurement Data System, the then Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System, and finally the Small Business Dynamic Search Tool. It uses natural language processing and other AI to match keywords with vendors that are qualified to perform work government agencies are seeking. These tools can identify potential new entrants, vendors who have never received a federal contract. It’s a great tool that is available to all federal agencies.  We conducted a pilot program of over 20 users across 5 components. We found that using the AI for Market Research Tool was a real timesaver, saving approximately 4 to 8 hours per market research report. Using this tool has radically simplified the market research process, helped to improve the quality of market research reports, and allowed program managers to focus on more important less manual tasks. 

On Leadership. The most important asset in any organization is the people. It is impossible to lead an organization or be a great leader without having fantastic people working with you. It is crucial for leaders to hire and retain the best people. On top of that is empowering these people to think creatively and critically always focusing on giving customers the best solutions possible at the best cost. This requires leaders to have a vision and provide clear direction for how best to realize that vision. People need clear direction and an understanding of that direction so they can deliver what is wanted and needed. A leader also needs to be compassionate especially in an increasing hybrid work environment encouraging staff to always find a balance between work and home. As a leader, I engage my team to step outside their comfort zone, try new things, and I support them doing those things even if they fail.

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