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Are Government Agencies Drowning in Data?

Are Government Agencies Drowning in Data?Recently Federal Computer Week featured an article entitled: Why agencies are drowning in data. The article was based on a recent survey by Semantic Corporation on effective big data strategies. The survey found that that the main reasons for agencies feeling overwhelmed were data governance and data security. I think, however, they were asking the wrong questions.

The government is currently producing and making available huge amounts of data. I agree that this data needs to be kept secure and managed so it can be made available to the appropriate users. However, I think the bigger question is who is taking the time to look at the data and what are they doing with the information. Take acquisition data, for instance. There are volumes of data about what the government is purchasing, who in the government is making the purchases and what they are buying. Government analysts could be asking questions like:

  1. Are we getting the best price possible on specific commodities?
  2. Does one agency negotiate better prices than other agencies?
  3. Why don’t we all get those good prices?
  4. Which contract vehicles are most cost effective?
  5. Is lowest price always the best answer?
  6. Do we get more returns on commercial items that were purchased due to lower prices?

The list could go on and on. The problem is that no one is really looking at the data — truly analyzing it. Analysis of this type is very common in the private sector as businesses try to understand where they fit in a marketplace and how to make their supply chain run more efficiently. Government employees do not look at themselves as running a business.  They are always looking for cheaper prices and more efficient business practices, but often do not have the marketing and data research skills that are necessary and becoming prevalent in the private sector.

I think the government should put equal emphasis on reviewing and using the big data they are collecting rather than just making sure it is safe and secure. They might be amazed at what they find.

Better Buying Power 3.0 – More Emphasis on Best Value

Blog Images 2013-06Best value is often described as the tradeoff between cost and performance that provides the greatest overall benefit. However, the word tradeoff to some may imply that one must either sacrifice cost to increase performance or sacrifice performance to reduce cost. Partnet prefers to define best value as the optimal blend of quality and performance delivered at the lowest possible cost and in the least amount of time.

It appears that Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics agrees with us on our best value definition. In a white paper published on September 19, 2014, Mr. Kendall says that Better Buying Power (BBP) 3.0 continues with a shift in emphasis toward achieving dominant capabilities through innovation and technical excellence.

Although overall cost continues to be a concern for the DOD, BBP 3.0 puts a strong emphasis on innovation. A series of new initiatives are listed below under the topic of Incentivize Innovation in Industry and Government:

  • Increase the use of prototyping and experimentation.
  • Emphasize technology insertion and refresh in program planning.
  • Use Modular Open Systems Architecture to stimulate innovation.
  • Increase the return on Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR).
  • Provide draft technical requirements to industry and involve industry in funded concept definition to support requirements definition.
  • Provide clear “best value” definitions so that industry can propose and DOD can choose wisely.
  • Increase small business participation, including more effective use of market research.

As a small business we appreciate the acknowledgement that we an important part of the DOD Acquisition Cycle. As stated in the white paper, “Small businesses remain one of DOD’s most productive sources of innovation — in services as well as in products.”

The Importance of a Defined Software Development Life Cycle

Software Development LifeCycleI’ve been thinking lately about how important it is for a company to have a well-defined process for the Software Development Life Cycle, or SDLC as we like to call it. I’m going to do a series a blogs to share our SLDC process.

Partnet’s SDLC employs industry-best practices in accordance with Agile principles and methods. Our approach ensures that the right product is delivered in the required time frame, while providing visibility into the solution’s development. As part of our Agile Development approach, we employ both Scrum and Kanban methodologies.

Partnet’s SLDC is a multistage process. The first step in the SDLC is to make sure that each development projects start with stable, well-defined requirements. Our Requirement Managers use industry-best requirement management practices as defined by the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK).

The requirements manager coordinates and schedules requirements gathering activities with each stakeholder group. These activities may take the form of interviews, video teleconferences, requirement workshops, questionnaires, or other forms of outreach. In some cases, multiple rounds of requirements gathering activities may be required as the results are documented and consolidated.

This step ends with the preparation of a formal requirements package. The requirements package describes desired outcome(s), assumptions, and constraints associated to a given business requirement. A requirements package may be presented in any number of formats, including but not limited to:

  • Functional specifications
  • Screen mockups and page wire frames
  • Flowcharts, sequence diagrams, data flow diagrams and other visual models
  • Data dictionary
  • Use cases and scenarios
  • User Roles
  • Goal or desired outcome
  • Benefit to the customers and stakeholders

The Partnet team completes the Requirements Step by meeting with the customer and other stakeholders to conduct a formal System Requirements Review. This involves distribution of the requirements package(s) for stakeholder approval. Signatures are collected from stakeholders, the Customer, and Partnet representatives to formally approve the solution requirements.

Part 2 of this blog series will cover how to handle new and emerging requirements once the formal requirements package has been developed. I hope that you have enjoyed our Part 1 of our Blog Series, the Importance of a Defined Software Development Life Cycle. If you would like to see any more of our blogs, check them out at partnet.com.

4 Steps to Prevent eCommerce Choice Overload

Questioning ChoicesAre too many choices making eCommerce difficult for consumers? Recently I listened to a TED Talk by Dr. Sheena Iyengar, Professor at Columbia University and author of “The Art of Choosing.”  In her TED Talk, Dr. Iyengar postulated that we are often overwhelmed by too many options in our lives which can lead to decision fatigue. Decision fatigue can result not only in careless decisions but even in decision paralysis, where no decision is made at all. While we relish in having our say, paradoxically, it can be that the more options we have to choose from, the more likely we are to simply walk away, abandoning our task without making a decision.

eCommerce managers—who often pride themselves in how much content they provide to their customers—should take this observation into consideration. Dr. Iyengar’s research has shown that customers must be led through a system of simple steps in order to make complex decisions. She has developed a system of presenting information to customers in order to prevent choice overload. She outlines the following four steps:

  1. Cut. Reduce the number of options to a reasonable number. Does anyone really need to have 250 options when it comes to jam? Fifty or even 25 kinds of jam may still offer enough variety.
  2. Concretize. Give the consumer enough information about each item to really know what they are getting. Each item should have a full, detailed description and an image.
  3. Categorize. Group like items to play to the strengths of the human mind. Our minds are much better at interpreting differences between products if the items are categorized. Comparing 60 computer monitors becomes a more manageable task when our options are grouped into ten subcategories.
  4. Condition for Complexity. Break down the decision process into steps for products that require configuration. This allows you to walk the customer though the decision-making process. Start with broader options and work your way down to the specifications with more options.  In configuring a computer, for example, start with memory which may have four or five options, move through the configuration questions and end with case color which may have 20 options. This trains the customer to move easily though the decision-making process.

While these principles are relevant to numerous types of decision-making scenarios, they are particularly applicable in the world of eCommerce. Customers often complain that eCommerce sites are just not user friendly. When pressed for details, however, customers fall short and are unable to explain exactly why or how this is. Comments like this may be an indication that customers are overwhelmed by the site; that they are experiencing choice overload. By considering these simple principles and adjusting your site accordingly, even sites that support thousands of products can be simplified and made more user friendly for their customers.

3 Things I’ve Learned Since Joining the Private Sector

Fly the CoopMany of my friends and colleagues are still “on the inside,” as in working for the Federal Government as civilian employees. I took the plunge 18 months ago; I retired and went to work in the private sector. This blog post is for my friends and colleagues who may be thinking about doing the same thing. I’ve got some points I’d like for you to consider that reach beyond the obvious.

1. You must stay informed. When working for the Federal Government, as long as you know the chain of command in your organization, the goals and objectives set by the organization, and the informal power structure therein, you really don’t have to pay too much attention to the larger world. If policies change the policy people will tell you – and even they have to be in touch with only their assigned area of responsibility. Sure, you are more effective if you continually survey the entire landscape, but you don’t necessarily have to do this.

In the private sector nobody tells you when to pay attention. Reading news articles, participating in LinkedIn discussion groups, monitoring trade journals is something you have to do now as part of your daily work habits. Suddenly it’s all about what you know that’s new in addition to who or what you know.

2. The bottom line is real and you must contribute. As a civil servant I worked hard to stay within budget for my projects. But truth be told, when unforeseen issues or needs arose, there was always money somewhere to bridge the gap. You do need skills such as anticipation, persuasiveness, and passion to get the available money before somebody else does, but somehow there’s always a way to keep moving forward.

In the private sector you have the money you have and that’s it. You also have the commitments you’ve made so you have to deliver while keeping costs below total funding. You have to pay the bills and have something left over or what’s the point of being in business? And every employee has a responsibility toward that bottom line either to keep costs down or find new business opportunities.

3. Freedom of speech is delightful. As a blogger in the private sector you get to share your opinion. When serving as a public official you have to say what the organization you serve wants you to say. Hopefully those two are in sync most of the time, making it an easy exercise. But not always.

In the private sector you are able to talk about the problems you see and offer suggestions for improving things that in the public sector may never leave your boss’ office. Over the last 18 months I’ve enjoyed digging into some of the things that have bothered me about how our Government works and then proceeded to “go public.” It’s like opening a window on a spring day. Oh, yeah, you have to watch out for the “pollen” (East-coasters, you know what I mean) so timing and how you say things counts!

So friends and colleagues still employed by the Feds, if you’re thinking about making the transition, I hope these thoughts will help you choose the best path. Others of you who have moved from a full Federal career to the private sector – what wisdom would you share?

National Patient Identifier on the Horizon?

Medical IdentityNational Patient Identifiers have been sparking a lot of discussion in the blogosphere in the last few months. Last month a Forbes article posited that a “128-Byte Data Field” identifying an individual could save lives and millions of dollars. On the same day, March 25, 2013 a petition was added to the “We the People” website requesting that the Obama Administration “Ask Congress to no longer prohibit the Department of Health and Human Services from establishing standards for a unique patient identifier.” The Petition goes on to remind us that in 1996 the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) required Health and Human Services (HHS) to “adopt national standards for electronic healthcare transactions” and “a standard unique health identifier for each individual, employer, health plan, and health care provider for use in the healthcare system.” In 1998 Congress passed Public Law 105-277 that prohibited HHS spending any funds to “promulgate or adopt any final standard … providing for, or providing for the assignment of, a unique health identifier for an individual … until legislation is enacted specifically approving the standard.” It was not until 2006, that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) started assigning a National Provider Identifier.

EHRs to Save the Day?

It was once thought that moving to Electronic Health Records (EHRs) would solve a lot of health care problems. While it has helped, it has not proven to be the silver bullet. Dr. Farzad Mostashari, head of the HHS/ONC recently stated in congressional testimony, that: “As of February 2013, more than 230,000 providers – nearly 43 percent of the nation’s eligible professionals, and over 75 percent of eligible hospitals – have earned over $12.6 billion in total payments for meeting the requirements of the EHR Incentive Programs.”  Although EHRs are being put in place they are being developed without clear standards and are not interoperable. Dr. Mostashari stated later in his testimony that the ONC was hesitant to dictate standards for interoperability. He wants to see the Healthcare Industry work past their differences.

As the healthcare industry is working out their interoperability problems, the Healthcare Information Management and System Society (HIMSS) – the healthcare industries not-for-profit organization that is “focused on providing global leadership for the optimal use of information technology” – has itself suggested that “8-14% of medical records include erroneous information tied to an incorrect patient identity.” It costs hospitals millions of dollars each year identifying and correcting these errors. Not to mention the potential cost to a patient!

Whether it is the 128-byte identifier suggested by the Forbes article or another idea that comes along, it looks like the issue of a National Patient Identifier has become a critical part of solving our healthcare information and security issues. I believe the discussion is just beginning.

Do you think we need a National Patient ID? Share your thoughts on the pros and cons of this controversial topic in the comments section below.

Busting Barriers for eCommerce in Government

I spent the last 16 years of my US Government career commuting two hours a day on top of my requisite “40 hours.” Needless to say, when I got home at the end of the day only dire circumstances (What?! Out of milk again?) would spur me on to another 30 minutes away from hearth and home to run a brick-Breaking Barriersand-mortar errand. Now I work from home and find the gravitational pull of said hearth and home to be even more powerful. Why put on street clothes, fix my hair and makeup when I am just a Point. Click. Ship. away from my every desire? I think of it also as lessening my carbon footprint: no CO2 emissions from my vehicle, less laundry to process, and I definitely recycle all those cardboard boxes in which my shipments arrive.

I have found that, as a private consumer, there is very little I cannot acquire online and yet there are perceived barriers for Government eCommerce that have caused the pace of growth to level off on Government owned and operated, built for Government’s purpose eCommerce websites like DOD EMALL and GSA Advantage.

I’d like to take a moment to explore some of these perceived barriers and their solutions. I’ll present this as A thought about a possible barrier, followed by

  • How we should respond.

I tend to think that time spent on the Internet is less productive.

  • Like any office activity, the time spent completing it is a strict coefficient of Dawdle. Compare the time spent browsing the shelves in a hardware store to searching for a product online. Add to that the time it takes to travel to the brick and mortar location and back again and the Internet wins.

I want to use suppliers with whom I’m familiar.

  • This is an understandable human tendency. But Government buyers have a fiduciary responsibility to do two things: ensure prices paid are fair and reasonable (FAR 12.2), and not favor any specific source of supplies (FAR Part 31).

I’m afraid that prices might be higher.

  • In some cases they might be right now. But if the contracting folks could guarantee all the Government’s business to a strategically selected small group of trusted contractors, there would be no lower prices on Earth. What this means is you have to do your part.

What I want is not there.

  • It’s probably easier during the course of a busy day to just look somewhere else. If DOD EMALL and GSA Advantage had a place where you could ask for certain items to be carried (see the point about strategic sourcing above) would you use it?

I don’t want to learn how to use another system.

  • I don’t blame you, particularly when the Department of Defense sponsors multiple versions of the same functionality. It’s time to merge all of the eCommerce capability into one system for this reason and to create an environment where strategic sourcing works.

I never saw a memo from my policy makers about a mandate to use DOD EMALL, GSA Advantage or some other eCommerce platform.

  • The Department of Defense has spent millions on developing eCommerce capabilities and then shies away from making it mandatory to use them. By not mandating their use, analysis of Business Intelligence that could further strengthen the Department’s position in negotiating prices is a lost opportunity. (See my related blog post, Has the Time for a Mandate Finally Arrived?)

I just use it for research and let my supply officer make the purchases.

  • At the ground level it’s hard to focus on overall cost to perform a business function. Let’s pretend this is you running your business for a minute. Would you find it acceptable for one employee to spend 15 minutes doing part of a job and then handing it off to another employee who will spend another 15 minutes completing the job, when the whole thing could have been accomplished by one person in 20 minutes? Multiply that times 52 weeks in a year and hundreds of products to be ordered and the waste adds up.

I thought it was just for office and cleaning supplies; I didn’t know you could get weapon system parts.

  • For every person who makes this statement, you can find one who thinks it’s for another specific commodity of some kind. And yet the information about the scope and depth of things available on both DOD EMALL and GSA Advantage is staring out at us from their home pages. Not only are there everyday business supplies and repair parts for vehicles, but there are services of various kinds. You can never know if you don’t look. And, as long as the current method for doing things goes unchanged, a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders, users won’t look unless they are made to.

Let’s begin a serious discussion about breaking down these barriers. DOD needs to focus on “how” instead of “why not.” Refocusing our buying habits to Government purpose built eCommerce tools can leverage buying power in unprecedented ways, providing the control needed to ensure a fair and reasonable business process with strategically formed partnerships that save real money.

B2B VS B2G: How eCommerce Can Save the Government Money

We’ve reached into the Partnet archive to bring you today’s post. Originally posted in March 2013, B2B VS B2G: How eCommerce Can Save the Government Money, is brought to us by blogger Debra Fryar.


Uncle Sam MoneyBusiness to Business (B2B) markets have positively influenced the business community for a number of years now. Their impact on the economy is evident in several ways:

Transaction costs. Three cost areas are significantly reduced through the conduct of B2B eCommerce.

  • First is the reduction of search costs, as buyers need not go through multiple intermediaries to search for information about suppliers, products and prices as in a traditional supply chain. Internet is more efficient at gathering information, in terms of effort, time, and money spent. In B2B markets, buyers and sellers are gathered together into a single online trading community, reducing search costs even further.
  • Second is the reduction in the costs of processing transactions (e.g. invoices, purchase orders and payment schemes), as B2B allows for the automation of transaction processes and therefore, the quick implementation of the same compared to other channels (such as the telephone and fax).
  • Third, online processing improves inventory management and logistics.

Removing Intermediaries. Through B2B e-markets, suppliers are able to interact and transact directly with buyers, thereby eliminating intermediaries and distributors.

Transparency in pricing. Among the more evident benefits of e-markets is the increase in price transparency.

  • The gathering of a large number of buyers and sellers in a single e-market reveals market price information and transaction processing to participants.
  • Increased price transparency has the effect of pulling down price differentials in the market.
  • Buyers are provided much more time to compare prices and make better buying decisions.
  • B2B e-markets also allow multiple buyers and sellers to participate in two-way or reverse auctions. In such environments, prices can be set through automatic matching of bids and offers.

Economies of scale and network effects. The rapid growth of B2B e-markets creates traditional supply-side, cost-based economies of scale. Furthermore, the bringing together of a significant number of buyers and sellers provides the demand-side economies of scale or network effects. Each additional incremental participant in the e-market creates value for all participants in the demand side. More participants form a critical mass, which is key in attracting more users to an e-market.

Business-to-government eCommerce, or B2G, is defined as commerce between companies and the public sector. The United States Government is the largest buyer in the world. The federal government spends over $300 billion dollars annually on various goods and services. The federal government is also under extreme pressure to save money wherever it can.

Although the federal government has taken advantage of some of the lessons learned by B2B markets, moving many of it processes and transactions to the Internet, it has not taken full advantage of web-based procurement or eMarketplaces. There are a few systems in place, GSA Advantage and DOD EMALL being the largest. But government e-procurement systems remain undeveloped and underutilized. Web-based purchasing policies increase the transparency of the procurement process and reduce the risk of irregularities. The federal government would be wise to use online marketplaces to take advantage of their enormous buying power and reduce prices across the board. The American taxpayer would be most appreciative.

What do you think? If you are an American taxpayer or involved in B2G, do you agree? Sound off in the comments section below.

Product Reviews for Government eCommerce

We’ve reached into the Partnet archive to bring you today’s post. Originally posted in June 2013, Five Little Stars: Product Reviews for Government eCommerce, presents why government sites should consider adopting the commercial standard of providing starred reviews. Blogger Gabrielle Zimmerman argues that this subtle change would go a long way to improve the perception of user friendliness by increasing the consumer’s understanding of the items available.


Shopping Cart on Laptop

Customer product reviews are a staple of nearly every type of eCommerce site except for one: government. While governments at the federal, state and local levels have adopted eCommerce for either payment purposes or procurement support, a taboo prevails: allowing customers of government-operated eCommerce sites the opportunity to say what they think about the products offered there.

As a private consumer, I cannot imagine making decisions about purchasing something that I couldn’t physically inspect without further information of some kind. What those who already own and use the product think is invaluable. Consumer product reviews are the answer to the questions about features not covered in the manufacturer’s marketing materials. They provide you with a warning about potential pitfalls or difficulties encountered when using a product. And their information can be vital in helping you determine which product to choose when most other factors are equal. Need an example? Let’s say that you need to buy 100 hammers to restock your maintenance shop? You find three hammer offerings, all the same price, weight and purpose and now you have to choose. What if one of the offerings had a product review that enthused about how the comfortable cushioned grip was ideal for big jobs; would that inform your decision? Of course it would!

The public sector has seen a high rate of adoption for eCommerce from access and sharing of records, and payment of taxes and fees, to acquisition of supplies and services needed in the conduct of government business. Since governments perform the acquisition of these supplies with funds collected from taxpayers, there is a fiduciary responsibility that both you and I should want taken seriously.

One area, particularly in the federal sector, that is highly regulated is contractor past performance (see Federal Acquisition Regulation Part 42.15). Since other acquisition professionals may use data regarding contractor performance in determining a contractor’s ability to perform on a new contract, the integrity of how data is collected and conveyed must be protected in order to ensure a level playing field. But is contractor performance and information about the product a contractor sells really the same thing? I don’t believe it is. Furthermore, if the information presented on a government website is clearly labeled, the need for transparency has been met.

Picture five little stars in a row with a label above saying “Customer-Provided Product Review” and a text box that appears when you hover over it that says, “This rating represents the average of all website users who have rated this product and does not reflect the opinion of the US Government regarding either the product or the contractor providing the product. This rating is supplied for information only.” There are few people ordering supplies within the federal government today that are unfamiliar with web-based ordering and the concept of customer product reviews. Customer reviews are a standard, better yet, best practice for eCommerce. The disclaimer covers any liability the Government’s might incur by stating that the opinion is unofficial, and the customer wins by being given valuable information that they could only get by picking up the object and using it for themselves.

It is not unusual to see feedback from users of government websites complaining that it’s just not user-friendly. However, when pressed for details, these users may find it difficult to articulate a specific problem. Government sites would be wise to adopt the commercial standard of providing starred reviews, which would go a long way to improve the perception of user friendliness by increasing the consumer’s understanding of the items available. To take this a step further, government eCommerce websites could benefit from incorporating the look and feel of their commercial counterparts to help their weary users feel more comfortable by operating in an arena with which they are familiar. So, what ideas would you offer to government eCommerce sites? Do you think consumer product reviews would be beneficial or would they be a problem? Sound off below.

Communicating with the Government Round-Up

communication_shutterstock_116233960_editLast month my colleague Gabrielle Zimmerman wrote a two-part blog series on Communicating with the Government. I put it out for discussion on LinkedIn asking for people’s experience with communicating with government and learned a lot.

Here is a summary of the advice that I got.

  1. You need to target developing relationships with both the acquisition community and the potential users. The potential users may be harder to identify and get in to see. Both of these groups are extremely busy and your interactions should be short and to the point.
  2. Attend Agency Industry Days or Commanders Conferences to make initial contact. These are times when the government acquisition community is looking for discussion with industry. Be friendly, concise, and prepared. Follow-up contact should be by phone and not email.
  3. Select different messages for different players.
  4. Acquisition folks need contracting details: a one-page capabilities statement works well. Be sure to include your NAICs, DUN S, CAGE, Business size/type and any contracting vehicles you have.
  5. If you get in to see the users, make sure you have done your homework and that you already know what they do. Try to get them to explain their needs from their point of view so you can continue the discussion with how you can help them specifically. Be prepared to concisely explain what you have done in the past that has been similar to their needs, how you solved a problem, improved a process, or saved the customer money.
  6. If you are selling an established product, military customers want to know details (i.e., What is the product range? Is it rugged? How long to the batteries last?) Be prepared to provide an information sheet with detailed information on the product.

Many thanks to the members of the LinkedIn Business Development, Proposal Management & Writing, Marketing & Sales from CapturePlanning.com and GSA & VA Schedule Contracting Group for a rousing discussion on this subject. So what do you think? Any important points that I’ve missed?