DHS looks to expand its Procurement Innovation Lab

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Department of Homeland Security Chief Procurement Officer Paul Courtney told FCW the agency is seeking a new senior level director to lead a small but mighty team of acquisition experts as they attempt to steer the federal government away from legacy buying processes.

A small but influential team of procurement officials within the Department of Homeland Security is steadily changing how the agency conducts business, and now wants to help the rest of the federal government shift away from legacy procurement processes.

Former DHS Chief Procurement Officer Soraya Correa first established the Procurement Innovation Lab in 2015 to help lower entry barriers for non-traditional contractors, shorten the time-to-award and increase successful outcomes with improved acquisition techniques. Correa said she launched the framework to encourage DHS' acquisition workforce to pitch projects that seek to streamline the procurement process and create "a more efficient and effective experience for industry and government."

"My goal was not to seek changes to statute or regulation but to identify and use all the flexibilities available in the Federal Acquisition Regulation," Correa told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in May. "Our process was designed to test the innovation or idea and share what we learned across the acquisition community."

Correa retired in 2021 after a 40-year career in public service, but her vision for the lab to serve as a model for other agencies and the private sector is continuing to take shape.

The lab is expanding its support and services for federal and industry acquisition departments as it currently coaches eight external teams with a total procurement value of $3.3 billion, in addition to 35 internal teams.

DHS Chief Procurement Officer Paul Courtney told FCW the agency is beginning to search for a new director to lead the innovation lab, in addition to launching a new boot camp training program for government and industries this fiscal year titled “The Next Level.” The new training program features nine new innovative procurement techniques. More than 5,000 people have participated in lab boot camps, including DHS and external federal agency employees and industry partners.

The new director will be tasked with overseeing the innovation lab as it continues to lead boot camp programs, monthly webinars, coaching clinics and other initiatives like PILCast, a series the agency launched via YouTube focusing on innovation conversations for acquisition professionals across industries and the federal government.

The innovation lab will also soon be subject to new congressional oversight following the passage of the Promoting Rigorous and Innovative Cost Efficiencies for Federal Procurement and Acquisitions Act of 2021, or the PRICE Act, which requires DHS to develop guidance based on PIL projects and produce annual reports on its procurement techniques.

“We didn’t ask for it, but Congress came forward and put this act in place for us,” Courtney said. “It’s a good thing … Congress has the interest of the PIL, and we want to make sure that we tout all the great things the team is doing, celebrate their successes and make sure the folks in DHS know that – even though Soraya has moved on to bigger and better things – we continue to support innovation in the department.” 

The innovation lab is continuing to test and roll out new initiatives while developing guidelines on enhanced procurement practices for federal and private industry buyers, including the PIL Idea Competition, a crowd-sourcing platform Courtney said the agency is using to “empower the acquisition workforce to improve procurement processes that may be inhibiting innovation.”

“Some teams at DHS have become frustrated by organizational processes that are not necessarily equipped to move at the speed of innovation,” Courtney said, adding that the platform seeks to identify those issues and leverage ideas from the DHS acquisition workforce. 

The DHS chief procurement officer said the strategy for the next four to five years is to continue empowering the acquisition workforce to do their jobs “without the bureaucratic practices that we have that really add no value to anything.”

“It’s amazing the pride that Soraya championed when she was here – and we continue to champion – in innovation and procurement,” Courtney said: “Whoever will listen, I’ll let them know this: The goal is not to obtain the lowest price. I want to make it very clear … the goal is really to have a successful outcome at the end.”