Emergency Contracting: Can RPA Tools Stop Fraud, Waste, and Abuse?

As the federal government continues to spend billions of taxpayer dollars responding to COVID-19, the reports of contracting irregularities have also not gone unnoticed. We have been here before, with Hurricane Katrina, Iraq and Afghanistan, and now COVID-19.

One area that continues to be an issue is the awarding of contracts to firms with little to no experience in government contracting, or little to no experience in delivering the goods and services needed during times of crisis.

First, let me say that my fellow procurement professionals continue to do amazing work under incredible pressures and time constraints. This type of work is not easy, and I understand it having part of a tiger team of acquisition experts called upon to help with these issues after Hurricane Katrina. Having been in the trenches myself, I know how incredibly difficult these challenges can be as these are literally life and death decisions being made.

Further, the fact that a firm may not have federal government experience may, in and of itself, not be a disqualifying factor. That is certainly true when it comes to digital services and emerging technologies.

However, when it comes to commodities with complicated supply chains, I would argue that performing contractor responsibility assessments governed under Federal Acquisition Regulation Part 9 are essential. This critical function ensures that contracts are awarded to firms who can deliver the goods and services needed during emergency responses, on time, on budget, and at that meet specifications to perform the mission.

This critical function can be time consuming. Combined with the time pressures and the velocity of contract actions, it can also be a challenge. Therefore, it is here where emerging technologies like Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can have a major impact on automating this process, and helping ensure this critical function is accomplished. This automation can allow acquisition professionals better data to make risk-based decisions and a proper analysis before awarding contracts.

At the Internal Revenue Service, our “Contractor Responsibility bot” have automated this process, and is helping Contracting Officers tremendously by not only completing this task in minutes, but also complete the documentation such that the analysis can be conducted in a streamlined manner. This essential process allows us to be responsible stewards of taxpayer funds, and also allows for complete and proper documentation to be included in the contract file to ensure it was not only done, but done correctly.

Further, enhancing the capability is the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools to take the process one step further. Current AI prototypes are also helping with the analysis by creating “risk profiles” for firms based on publicly available information. These profiles, combined with ensuring the proper qualifications, can dramatically help the analysis in a streamlined fashion.

Finally, automating market research tools can also help streamline pre-award processes. There are several good tools out there, like the Solutions Finder on the general Services Administration’s Acquisition Gateway, or an interesting commercial tool such as Govshop by the Public Spend Forum. These tools can help find suppliers, vehicles, and performance information. Several tools under development also show promise through incorporating AI and helping create the analysis to include risk profiles and suggested set aside opportunities, in addition to recommended acquisition strategies based on requirements analysis and other pre-determined filters created by the user.

Although these technologies are of course not a silver bullet, I believe they have the potential to greatly hinder the prevalence of these contracting issues that seem to always plague responses to national emergencies. Nonetheless, and if leveraged properly, automation has the potential to transform emergency contracting where time is of the essence. Combined with needed accountability, I hope to read about the lack of fraud, waste, and abuse in responding to future disasters.

It is just a matter of when, and not if, the next crisis will occur. We need to improve procurement performance and leadership, which requires vision to scale these solutions and incorporate them into emergency operations.

Taxpayers deserve better. We all do.

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