The Army's secret to cutting manual work for contracting professionals

Thanks to robotic process automation, the time it takes Army contracting professionals to determine whether prospective vendors should receive a contract has been cut from an hour to just five minutes.

Thanks to robotic process automation, the time it takes Army contracting professionals to determine whether prospective vendors should receive a contract has been cut from an hour to just five minutes.

About 8,000 contracting professionals use the Determination of Responsibility Assistant (DORA) bot to pull information from two public websites: the System for Award Management (SAM) and the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS). Historically, this was manual work, with contracting officers spending an hour accessing both systems, creating PDF files from each and typing their results into a memo.

“The bot does it in five minutes,” said Elizabeth Chirico, lead of the Acquisition Innovation through Technology team, which created the bot, at the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Procurement, or DASA(P). Plus, because manual work leaves the Army open to human error, DORA bot also increases the service’s compliance, she added.

The bot brings other benefits, too: With it, the Army saves about 13 days of procurement administrative lead time per contracting professional and avoids about $29.3 million in costs per year.

To initiate the bot, a contracting official types a vendor’s nine-digit DUNS number, a unique identifier for all federal vendors, in an email subject line. That triggers the bot to search the sites’ databases for information on whether the contractor is registered in each system to do business with the federal government and has no active exclusions. Within minutes, the DORA bot sends contracting officials a summary document of the vendor’s responsibility status and results, including screenshots of what’s in the company’s file.

“It’s designed to assist Army contracting officials to determine if a prospective contractor is responsible or not,” Chirico said. “This is one of the many mandatory processes that takes place over the course of a federal acquisition. There’s hundreds of other steps, but this is just one.”

The DORA bot also populates a policy memo on a Defense Department template that goes through Federal Acquisition Regulation Section 9.104, which addresses contractor responsibility and the requirements that a contracting professional must look into before making an award.

“The bot will automatically select appropriate boxes or raise flags if there’s a reason the vendor would be excluded in SAM or FAPIIS or they have a tax deficiency – if there’s any major reason why a contracting professional [should] look further into their files,” Chirico said.

Running Automation Anywhere software, the bot is a software-as-a-service tool currently housed in an Amazon Web Services cloud environment, but the team is working to move it into a Defense Department environment.

A DASA(P) internal report showed that, on average, the Army issues about 250,000 contract actions per year, and contracting professionals must determine whether a contractor is responsible in each stage of the action, according to a blog post Chirico coauthored. To that end, the bot doesn’t put contracting professionals’ jobs at risk. With hundreds of steps to go through in the acquisition process, DORA bot is intended for streamlining, not downsizing, she said.

“We’re really just trying to shift the focus from that compliance-driven work to more of the critical-thinking type of work and the administration of our contracts,” Chirico said. “We are empowering them to make better decisions. We’re pre-populating information for them, but this is still firmly a contracting officer’s responsibility to make this determination,” she said. “All that the DORA bot does is help them pre-populate that information.”

DASA(P) stood up its Acquisition Innovation through Technology team in August 2019 to explore new and emerging technologies and determine how they could apply to acquisition and contracting business processes. Inspired by an IRS bot, the team piloted DORA bot in November 2019 and deployed it Army-wide two months later. Under a memorandum of agreement (MOA) signed in July, the Navy and Air Force began using the bot on Oct. 1.

The team plans to expand DORA bot’s use in fiscal 2021, Chirico said, after MOAs are in place and once tweaks can be made. The way it is designed now, the bot receives email only from .mil addresses and the memo is on DOD letterhead that other agencies don’t want to use. Additionally, other agencies want DORA bot to check sites besides SAM and FAPIIS, Chirico added.

This article first appeared on GCN, a Defense Systems partner site.