Alliant bucks rising protest trend
GSA's Ed O'Hare talks Alliant, Networx and trends in procurement
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part 3 of a three-part interview with GSA Assistant Commissioner of IT Services Ed O'Hare. Click here for part one and here for part two.
The number of contract award protests rose 20 percent in fiscal 2009, to 1,989, up from 1,652 the previous year, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.
It’s a trend to which the General Services Administration’s Alliant contracts, the $50 billion, 10-year follow-ons to Answer and Millennia, has contributed not a single digit, said Ed O’Hare, GSA’s assistant commissioner of IT Services.
In the eight months since Alliant was awarded to 59 companies, there have been 21 awards with an estimated total value of $172 million, he said. “And no protests. It’s a good story.”
A drearier tale concerns agencies’ transition from GSA’s expiring FTS2001 telecommunications contract to the Networx contracts. By dollar value, the transition is less than 10 percent complete.
Washington Technology contributing editor Sami Lais recently talked with O’Hare about Alliant, Networx and the changes he expects cloud computing and other trends to have on contracting at GSA.
Q: Can we talk about the Networx transition?
O’HARE: Yes, because I also wanted to hit on the engagement aspect of it, because this is all about the customer intimacy that Martha Johson talked about. I think she talked about five things, and Networx transition was one.
I almost dropped out of my seat when I read that because when I took this job, that was — and still is — my first priority.
I’m really, really, really pleased with the things we’ve done. It’s hard, and I’m not saying we’re where we want to be with it. But today we are at 38 percent done — we measure transition by disconnects from the old contract. Our original goal for this month is 40 percent. So if we pick up 2 percent by the end of [January], we will be back on target, which is just a phenomenal statement.
Q: But that depends on how you’re measuring transition progress, because—
O’HARE: Well, like anything — how do you measure the economy? There’s a million different ways. We agreed with the agencies a long time ago that disconnects from the old contract would be the measure, and that’s what I’m talking about. There’s a lot of other measures that we track on—
Q: Because while it’s 30-some percent on the disconnects, the disconnects are not all for services transferred to Networx—
Q: And meanwhile, the dollar value of transitioned services—
Q: Is only at about 4 percent.
O’HARE: It’s up to 8 percent now, so that’s moving in the right direction, too.
Q: It’s moving in the right direction, but—
O’HARE: Right. I mean, yeah, it’s hard, nobody was focused on it, there were a lot of other priorities — but the point is I think we’ve resolved those issues. I think we’ve now got the focus we need to do this.
O’HARE: You know, I was talking yesterday with someone from the Federal Communications Commission, and he was talking about their wireless broadband plan. And he says, "We need to get that GSA Networx contract open to state and locals because it’s got some good products and services that could be very important to interoperability between federal, state and local emergency communications." Yes.
Q: Protests have slowed some Networx awards, but in general there’s been an uptick in award protests. How do they affect the way you do business?
O’HARE: Let me talk about that in relation to Alliant, because Fair Opportunity plays a role in Alliant. If you’re a contract officer, you probably look to Alliant as a good vehicle because you know those guys and they’re all really pretty good and you figure you can make an award and probably nobody’s going to protest it. Well, that’s not the world today. First off, we’ve got about 60 companies and there is Fair Opportunity.
Now Alliant has been out there for about eight month and not a single protest has been launched. Cool.
But the average number of proposals per task order is 2.8.
This goes back to what I said before: Proposals cost money. Companies don’t bid on something willy nilly. They look at [the RFP], if they’ve got a relationship, they understand the need and they think they’re in a position to win, then they’ll invest the money to bid.
Just because there are 60 vendors out there doesn’t mean you’re going to get 60 bids every time they put out [an RFP]. The most we’ve gotten in eight months is eight, and that’s a single. So you’re getting the competition and more important, not a single protest.
It’s 21 awards; obligated value: $44 million; estimated value: $172 million; and no protests.
Q: How’d you manage that?
O’HARE: You need to define your requirements well, you need to tell industry how you’re going to make a selection and you need to adhere to your requirements and make your selection accordingly.
You know, you talk to a lot of people and they say, "Nah, I don’t use Alliant because there are too many vendors and what the heck, they can protest it anyway." Eight months, zero protests. .
Q: GSA has done a lot to repair its reputation in recent years; what remains to be done?
O’HARE: I have challenges — I want to see this Networx transition done; we can’t let up on that at all. The Alliant program is going well, but I’ve got to continue to sell that. I’ve got the Schedules program — I want to do better. I want it to be the best program ever in government. We need to do our strategic acquisitions, our situational awareness, which just led to [a SmartBuy award for geospatial software and services], we’re doing certification and accreditation. So these are things that save the government a tremendous amount of money.
What additional ComSatComs are out there? I call those strategic acquisitions.
And, of course, you’ve got to deal with change.
Because of the 1102 [GS-5 to GS-12 rated government employees] shortage in this town, and the fact that most of my employees are 1102s, we have a tremendous amount of churn. We’ve got to deal with that as well.
Q Will this push for insourcing affect how you write contracts?
O’HARE: Per se, no. Theoretically, to the degree agencies insource, you would see a downturn in services bought off the contracts. If they’re outsourcing, that means they’re buying off some kind of government contract.
We service about 28 percent of the IT spend in the federal government. So it would be expected that you would see some of our revenue go down. But if that’s what people need to do to fulfill their mission, that’s fine. I mean, we run this like a business, but we don’t have a profit motive. We have a service mission; if an agency is going to stop using a contract we have and that works for them — good. I’m not going to bemoan that or criticize it. That’s wonderful. It’s up to me to manage my business so the expenses and resources stay in sync, but that’s what I do.
Q: But concurrently, there’s also an opposite drive from agencies to buy end-to-end solutions, to buy solutions as a service.
O’HARE: What can I say? It’s a complex world. [Laughs] You mean we have conflicting interests and conditions? Sure!
The point is, each customer is unique and different and we need to be able to respond to that. We need to have a portfolio of products and solutions that lets us respond to our customers’ needs. It’s our mission.
Sami Lais is a special contributor to Washington Technology.