Acquisition officials highlight need for transparency in AI discussions with industry

Federal government acquisition officials from GSA and NASA said transparency is key in discussions about purchasing artificial intelligence technologies.
(Getty Images)

Transparency about what artificial intelligence technologies can actually do is key to conversations about the government potentially purchasing the technology, two government acquisition officials said Thursday.

Officials from the General Services Administration and NASA underscored the need for honest conversations and updated ways of thinking about contracts in a panel discussion about keeping pace with innovations in government technology purchasing. That discussion, during a Professional Services Council event on federal acquisition, focused heavily on purchasing AI, whose boom in popularity has also reverberated throughout the government.

“What I’m seeing as a buyer of this type of technology is I’m being sold the world, and when I go to look at it, it’s not really the world. It’s this little dirt path on the corner,” said Geoff Sage, director of the Enterprise Service and Analysis Division in NASA’s Office of Procurement. 

Sage noted that generative AI is “changing the game every single day,” so something that’s important for his agency is the ability to “take baby steps to prove out a bigger concept.” Those efforts can be learning opportunities, he said.


Udaya Patnaik, chief innovation officer for the Office of IT Category in GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service, said the challenge with trying to “wrangle a constantly evolving technology” is that the capabilities of that technology aren’t clear. 

“That requires a level of transparency between industry and government to really say, ‘look, this is what we know, and this is what we don’t know,’” Patnaik said. For example, he said industry needs to be able to identify where a model comes from, the data it’s trained on and the biases that could exist in the system. 

The discussion comes as the Biden administration and members of Congress are looking at ways to address how the government purchases AI. The Office of Management and Budget recently solicited information from the public to inform its work to ensure procurement of AI by federal agencies is responsible. A bipartisan Senate bill would mandate that agencies assess the risks of the technology before purchasing and using them.

In addition to transparency, Patnaik also said it’s important to look at contracts “openly” because the way that AI or machine learning technologies from 10 or 15 years ago used to be acquired isn’t relevant anymore. 

That requires “an unprecedented level of real tight coordination and conversation between the acquisition community, the legal community, and the technical community to really understand what’s there and what’s not,” Patnaik said.


With respect to older methods of buying, Sage similarly said “we need to be more innovative.” 

Due to the proliferation of the technology in different areas, he explained that there is heightened focus on topics that come with generative AI such as data rights and copyright infringement.

Sage said NASA has been pushing for early and open communications internally that include the office of the chief information officer, lawyers, and technical professionals from day one.

In an interview with press at the same event, PSC President and CEO David Berteau said keeping pace with the speed of the technology’s rapid evolution and evaluating results are “two competing dynamics” that the White House has to focus on in its action.

“How do you pace the government’s incorporation with the pace of development of technology is the first key question. The second is, what’s it worth?” Berteau said.


He said that it’s not like code where there was a methodology for creating a proposal and estimating how much it would cost to write lines of code. “Now it looks like it’s almost instantaneous, but may be exactly worth nothing,” Berteau said.

Madison Alder

Written by Madison Alder

Madison Alder is a reporter for FedScoop in Washington, D.C., covering government technology. Her reporting has included tracking government uses of artificial intelligence and monitoring changes in federal contracting. She’s broadly interested in issues involving health, law, and data. Before joining FedScoop, Madison was a reporter at Bloomberg Law where she covered several beats, including the federal judiciary, health policy, and employee benefits. A west-coaster at heart, Madison is originally from Seattle and is a graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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