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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

Air Force sole-source software award raises questions of transparency

This was going to be an easy straight-forward post. A notable company receives five year contract with the Air Force. Instead this is going to be a rant.

First I scan Beta.Sam.Gov looking for information. (I’ve made my peace with Beta.Sam but it is still a pain to work with.) I find a posting about a sole-source award to Red Hat. It’s a five-year software license for the company's JBOSS product that is used by the Air Force’s Global Broadcast System. GBS provides real-time satellite data.

JBOSS is already in use with GBS and the Air Force needs to renew 3,000 licenses. The Air Force argues it would be too time consuming and too costly to switch. They claim it would take 50 weeks to switch over to a new product. New hardware would be needed.

They list several other reasons as well including the thousands of man-hours needed to re-code GBS to operate with an alternative. The Air Force argues it could never recoup the added cost of switching.

If you think my rant is about sole-source contracts, you’d be wrong. While an argument can made against a sole-source contract, that’s not what irked me.

What irks me is that there is no disclosure on the contract's value. All information on the value of the contract has been redacted with big black marks and I can’t fathom why.

Contract costs are routinely disclosed. Eventually this one will be as well via the Federal Procurement Data System. But that takes months, so why the delay?

The justification for the sole-source award includes 16 references to pricing and costs, but all are blacked out. These include the value of the base year contract and each of the four option years.

But the justification also includes the estimate of what it would cost to buy another product. There also is the cost of the 2,000 labor hours the Air Force says would be needed to reprogram GBS and the cost of the 1,000 to 2,000 hours needed for testing.

All redacted.

So why is this important to me? This is a prime example of a lack of transparency in the procurement process. Maybe the Air Force is right (I have some doubts) and has no other choice but to pick Red Hat. But their argument would be stronger if the pricing was disclosed.

I also believe competition is a critical component of an efficient government and a powerful mechanism for fostering innovation. A sole-source contract stifles that. We should all care about this.

The justification document also raises some doubts in my mind about whether this should be a sole-source contract.

To get a sole-source justification approved, an agency has to explain why the price it is paying is “fair and reasonable.”

In this case, the Air Force issued a request for information to NASA SEWP vendors. Seven responded and this is the part that just kills me. The Air Force writes that the responses to the “notice provid(e) confirmation of the ability for multiple businesses on the NASA SEWP IDIQ to bid on the complete requirement.”

There are seven companies that can compete for this requirement? Why not run a competition?

Instead, the Air Force used the responses to that RFI to conclude that “adequate price competition exists to establish a fair and reasonable price.”

But how do we know that if they don’t disclose the pricing?

The Air Force justification also says that future purchases also will likely need to be a brand name justification, which again seems to be contradicted by the results of their RFI.

Just beat a dead horse, the justification might make all of my questions go away if the pricing and cost information was disclosed. Without that information, we just can’t be sure.

For the record, I’ve attempted to reach out to the Air Force and Red Hat but I haven’t received a response yet.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Jun 18, 2020 at 11:49 AM

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