GSA digesting industry feedback for Alliant 2

General Services Administration director Casey Kelley is very talkative about the agency's upcoming Alliant 2 contract and is paying attention to feedback he is getting from industry.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on FCW.com

Casey Kelley likes to talk about Alliant 2. For most of 2015, it seems, he’s been doing little else.

Alliant 2, of course, is the General Services Administration’s successor to the Alliant governmentwide acquisition contract, which since 2009 has provided agencies with a wide range of IT services and service-based solutions. And Kelley, as director of GSA’s Enterprise GWAC Division, is responsible for making sure the new contract works for companies and agency customers alike.

What he can’t do, however, is answer the one question that gets asked most often: When will the Alliant 2 request for proposals be released?

“All I can tell you with certainty is that it will not happen this fiscal year,” Casey told FCW. “Winter is a safe estimate right now.”

Truth be told, Kelley and his colleagues have been focused more on listening than talking. Early in 2014, GSA launched an Alliant 2 forum on its discussion website, Interact.GSA.gov, and quickly signed up some 8,000 members. A request for information was released last fall, and more than 1,000 people signed up to attend the first Alliant 2 industry day in November.

Feedback from those discussions was folded into the draft RFP, which GSA released on March 31 — and then the conversations really started.

Throughout April, GSA officials hosted an unprecedented series of one-on-one meetings with contractors interested in bidding on Alliant 2. According to Kelley, “349 companies signed up for the opportunity to give us input and feedback.”

Not all of those RSVPs turned into actual meetings, but Richard Blake, a GSA business management specialist and IT technical adviser, said that over the course of 29 days, he took part in 106 meetings and came away with important notes “from about 105 of them.”

Essentially, Kelley said, the strategy was to listen to industry representatives until no one wanted to talk anymore. “We’re doing everything we can to listen to industry,” he said, “and also to...our customers in all the agencies.”

What is there to talk about?

By most measures, Alliant and Alliant Small Business have been a success. In six years, agencies have issued nearly 900 task orders, totaling some $27 billion worth of IT services. Several of the contract holders have “graduated” out of their small-business status. Task orders have come from 60 agencies and ranged from $37,000 to $2 billion; without the outliers, the average is $33 million.

So part of the challenge is simply to make sure Alliant 2 and Alliant 2 Small Business keep a good thing going. And that’s no small task when technology is evolving so rapidly and the acquisition vehicle in question is supposed to cover IT needs for a decade. Much of the industry feedback to date, in fact, has focused on the draft RFP’s section on “leading-edge technologies” — a section that Blake stressed would not define the scope of Alliant 2 but is nonetheless a critical gauge of “industry interest about where things are headed.”

The contract also comes at a time when protests have significantly delayed several other major IT acquisition vehicles. The Air Force’s Network Centric Solutions-2 application services contract, for example, made its original awards a year ago but just finalized its list of vendors in late March because successful protests forced a recompete. SEWP V — the latest version of NASA’s Solutions for Enterprise-Wide Procurement GWAC, which focuses more on IT products — saw similar, albeit shorter, delays when its October 2014 awards were protested.

GSA’s GWAC for professional services — One Acquisition Solution for Integrated Services — also saw its share of protests when awards were made in May 2014, but all were ultimately resolved in GSA’s favor. Casey and John Cavadias, the GSA senior contracting officer responsible for the Alliant 2 RFP, said they had monitored the OASIS procurement closely and are trying to apply what worked to Alliant 2.

“We’re using the procurement technique of highly technically rated and fair and reasonable pricing, which is the technique OASIS used,” Cavadias said. “We watched all the protests be resolved.... It was found to be innovative, but within the rules, allowable.”

And rather than using pass/fail criteria, officials will assign points to determine which vendors should be added to the Alliant 2 contract, he added. That scoring criteria has prompted plenty of questions and concerns from industry, but Cavadias was confident the transparency would pay off.

“Making this...as objective as possible, allowing industry to tell us what we’re doing wrong — it’s very helpful to us” in mitigating some of the problems and possible protests, he said.

Open, but with discretion

No one expects Alliant 2 to avoid protests entirely, but the industry response to GSA’s listening tour has so far been positive.

“I think the Alliant team is doing an incredible job,” Jackie Everett, vice president for federal civilian business development at Hewlett-Packard, told FCW. Getting something as complicated as Alliant 2 right demands frank and full discussions between government and industry, she said, and “they’re using all sorts of communication models to make that happen.”

Casey Coleman, the former GSA CIO who now runs Unisys Federal’s civilian business, agreed. “We really appreciate GSA setting up these forums and, more broadly, that they’re continuously looking to improve the government/industry dialogue. It’s outstanding.”

Coleman and Everett said the key to successful discussions was GSA’s decision to make the one-on-one meetings essentially confidential. Although the Alliant team could not share any information with a particular vendor that would not be shared publicly, industry officials could ask questions and raise concerns without fear that details about their own approach to Alliant 2 would wind up documented on the Interact site or FedBizOpps.gov.

“Oftentimes, government procurements contain language that inadvertently drive up indirect or overhead costs — which is reflected in the cost to the government,” Coleman said. “But there may not be a full awareness on the part of the government of the cost to reach that requirement.”

“So in a forum like this, you can have a conversation about what the government is really trying to get to by way of an outcome and explore more cost-efficient ways to deliver those outcomes,” she added. “And we think that will result in better understanding on the part of industry of what the government is trying to achieve and, on the part of government, to do a more cost-effective procurement that is going to result in better outcomes.”

Everett said the face-to-face discussions helped clear up confusion on both sides of the table so that the final RFP can be improved. “It’s amazing what’s written on paper and what gets interpreted,” she said. After the April meetings, “I can see the wheels moving with the [Alliant] executive staff.”

Kelley said he had heard similar things from industry. “The feedback from the 100-plus meetings we had in San Diego [was that] they were so thankful for the transparency, the lead time, the collaboration — and for the demonstration that we are listening,” he added.

That demonstration included the fact that feedback from the industry day Interact discussions has been reflected in the draft RFP, he said. “There were changes to that since the first RFIs based on input and feedback that we’ve been getting from industry,” he said. “We can’t accommodate and please everyone, but we’re genuine in trying.... We want advice on what we can do to make this better for our customers and make it a level playing field.”

Turning talk into action

The big question now is how much all this discussion will alter the draft RFP — and when those changes will come into focus.

Blake, Cavadias and Kelley said another draft RFP before the final version was not guaranteed, but updates on the Interact site and additional RFIs about particular sections would signal important revisions.

“You’ll see a dramatic change from the [draft] RFP to the final RFP, specifically in the technical areas,” Blake said. The contractors “gave us insight we just didn’t have. We will do a much better job with the leading-edge technologies.”

Cavadias, meanwhile, said concerns about the past-performance provisions being too subjective would be addressed. “I will break up the point structure per project, rather than all or nothing,” he said, adding that “almost everything in [the draft RFP] is open to change.”

And although no more one-on-one meetings are planned, the Alliant 2 team continues to seek feedback — especially from the agencies that they hope will be loyal customers.

They are working with a Defense Department tiger team, for example, to get feedback from each of the military services on the draft RFP. The goal is to “make this final product something that they will endorse and support, even though it’s not a DOD contract,” Kelley said.

There are also group discussions underway at ACT-IAC, the Professional Services Council and other industry organizations. And “we have monthly meetings...with a large agency pool,” Cavadias said. “We need that feedback!”

“We continue to refine and perfect,” Kelley said. “The ultimate vision...is to make any other agency ask [itself] why they would consider setting up their own unique agency IT service vehicle.”

A new model for dialogue?

It’s a common refrain in federal acquisition that agency/industry dialogue has been curtailed by overly narrow interpretations of what’s allowed. The Alliant 2 outreach proves that broader discussions are possible but also raises another question: Does either party have the time to talk like this on a regular basis?

Everett, for one, hopes so. “I would love to see the government have more dialogue with industry,” she said. “There are real advantages when the door appears to be open.”

Coleman noted that “there’s more at stake for these really large procurements,” and the Alliant 2 team’s marathon of meetings represented a time commitment that might not be feasible for every contract.
“But I certainly think this kind of model is replicable elsewhere and could be very beneficial in a lot of different situations,” she said.

And although GSA officials were hesitant to talk about the broader implications of their Alliant 2 approach, Blake was not shy about his basic philosophy: “We’d be idiots, frankly, not to listen to some of the things they had to say.”  

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