How the IRS procurement team did a year's work in three days

When the US Inland Revenue Service (IRS) was required to add security language into more than a thousand procurement contracts it managed to condense a year’s work into three days using bots.

IRS CPO Shanna Webbers said when, like all federal agencies, the IRS was obliged by the National Defense Authorization Act to insert telecommunications security language into contracts it calculated how long this would take.

The “worst case scenario” was that it could take up to 5,400 hours – or 2.5 years – to modify 100% of active contracts. 

With an annual spend of $2.6bn, the IRS procurement team found itself forced to look for a rapid solution in the fourth quarter of the year – a quarter when roughly 35% of its procurement obligations need to be dealt with.

Webbers said the team also had to ask itself what was the potential backlash if it failed to properly modify a contract and the vendor turned out to be using prohibited services or equipment. 

With approximately 2,700 active contracts and an average timespan of two hours to complete a modification, input data and upload documents, the team needed to look for a faster method. 

The use of product service codes narrowed down the necessary work to 1,466 contracts requiring alteration, but even modifying these contracts would take a year to accomplish.

Earlier the team had used robotic process automation (known as a “bot”) to correct data errors in another process.  

“We knew the bot could update the system in seconds, but we didn’t know if it could create contract modifications in bulk,” said Webbers.

“There was a lot of angst and opposition about using the bot for this purpose. Some suggested the risk of using an unproven approach was too high, and I listened to various concerns and reasons why this might not work.”

She said, however, that she was convinced the bot offered the best chance of performing the work by deadline.

“I decided to move forward with the bot effort. I was willing to accept the risks and give it a try, especially since I didn’t see any other way to modify thousands of contracts in such a short timeframe.”

She decided to go ahead as even if the bot had not worked, the team could still use current processes as a “plan B”.

Even with the use of the bot the team failed to meet the deadline. However the task was accomplished in record time of three days.

Work that would normally take a contract officer two hours was accomplished in just over three minutes on average – at no extra cost, said Webbers.

“During this Covid-19 pandemic, we are operating in a constant state of uncertainty and when there is uncertainty, it’s important to think outside of the box to find new solutions,” she added.

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