GSA rises to the occasion with ASCEND, its new cloud acquisition vehicle

The General Services Administration has dubbed a blanket purchasing agreement for cloud services with the name ASCEND. Is GSA rising to the occasion? Federal D...

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 The only thing more numerous than the number of commercial cloud services providers is the number of ways to buy from them. Now the General Services Administration has dubbed a blanket purchasing agreement for cloud services with the name ASCEND. Is GSA rising to the occasion? Federal Drive with Tom Temin got one view from federal sales and marketing consultant, Larry Allen.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Tell us about ASCEND and what are they trying to accomplish here? And is this good or bad for the vendors?

Larry Allen: What GSA is trying to accomplish here is putting together a set of very flexible blanket purchase agreements that aren’t contracts, new contracts in and of themselves. They’re based on existing in this case, multiple award schedule contracts, which the agency believes will allow them to provide a new level of flexibility to tailor solutions specifically to different customer needs. In talking with GSA officials about what’s now known as ASCEND, they had feedback apparently, from agencies that said, what they didn’t want is an out of the box cloud solution. They wanted something that they could tweak and be adjusted to be their own. So GSA is trying to meet that stated need through ASCEND, and from that standpoint, you understand why they’re doing it. Customer agencies come and say we don’t want an out of the box solution. GSA says, “Hey, we can put together a blanket purchase agreement that allows you to customize things and we can work with you on that.” So there’s a role for the agency. Contractors, however, I think are going to be left scratching their head going, “Another one?”, because as you pointed out in the intro, there are many existing ways to acquire cloud services today. Some of which have their own degrees of flexibility. Ironically, the GSA schedule is one of those and the BPAs are going to be based on contractors, GSA Schedule contracts. So maybe this is a little added, extra piece of work to get the BPA. But if a customer agency is looking for a tailored solution today, or cloud, they can get it. I guess the idea is that GSA, through setting up ASCEND, is going to provide a storefront that makes it a little more obvious for agencies to know, hey, you can get it and you can get it here.

Tom Temin: Does the BPA cover the GSA Schedule contractors? Is that pretty much the entire cloud industry as we understand it available there in the first place?

Larry Allen: Well, I think that’s a reasonable question. Certainly the number of cloud solutions on the schedules is very robust and wide. I’m not sure that it’s going to take in some of the specialized DoD requirements, Tom. Particularly those that have high level certifications for security, but there are a lot, it may. I just haven’t gone into all the detail with GSA. But there certainly will be a number of cloud options that customer agencies can access via ASCEND. A word of caution to contractors. Just because you have a GSA schedule doesn’t mean that you will automatically be added to the ASCEND cloud BPA. Anyone who is going to have to compete for that GSA is going to send out an RFQ. You want to look at that carefully and understand it both in terms of capabilities, and in terms of pricing, so that you’re competitive on all fronts.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners. And the other thing I wanted to ask you about is the fact that the bonanza of spending related to COVID seems to be stalled. That railroad has kind of hit the end of the tracks. There was that $10 billion bill, but it’s all tied up in politics and competing views now.

Larry Allen: That’s right, Tom, you know, we saw Congress before they left last week tried to put together a $10 billion COVID relief package a new round of COVID relief funding, if you will. While there are people in Congress who believe that another round of COVID funds are necessary, a lot of people I think are left scratching their heads. Folks are going back to work. We still have outbreaks here and there, but they seem to be manageable. People are going back to the jobs they had so don’t need the paycheck protection assistance. In fact, employers are are looking actively for people to come back into the labor force. I had a conversation last week with people in the Commonwealth of Virginia. They believe that they have 300,000 jobs that can be filled by people who, at least temporarily, left the workforce due to COVID. At the same time, the $10 billion that Congress was going to pass, almost none of that, Tom, was new money. It was simply going to reprogram money that Congress had previously set aside for COVID. And that’s kind of an other interesting part of this. Months ago, a year ago, Congress sent out a couple of different tranches of COVID funding, and directed agencies, everybody from the SBA, to HHS, to commerce, other agencies, to spend COVID funds. And the reality is that billions of dollars of this money has never made it into the market. It’s never made it into the hands of either small businesses or others for whom it was intended. And I think there are a lot of reasons for that. One, it is bureaucratically difficult to get all that much money out. Two, it’s difficult to get the message out to the people who are the intended beneficiaries, past a certain timeframe. So when Congress passes this legislation that has big numbers attached to it, it’s worth looking I think, down the road to see what actually got spent, because I think a lot of it just sits there unallocated. This was really an attempt for Congress to reallocate something. It faces a very problematic future, Tom, even when Congress returns from recess.

Tom Temin: And this points to the need for contractors to retain that capability to look beyond just the program’s side of government and understand the budget and money flow side of it. So that they can match what they understand of their agency customers programmatic needs, with where the budget actually is, and maybe guide customers, “Hey, there’s money here that you could use for this”, the consultive idea.

Larry Allen: Right. And that’s true. I’ve talked to some of my colleagues in the business about working, particularly with small firms to pursue previously provided COVID money that’s just sitting there waiting to help small firms for a variety of different platforms. It’s tough getting people’s attention to say, “Hey, you know, you ought to talk about this.” But it’s even tough getting the long-term attention of some of my colleagues to say, “Let’s get organized, let’s talk about this. Get the message out.” You know, here we are, in April, things are warming up, COVID numbers, thankfully, are down. People’s minds are somewhere else. And yet, if you wanted to take advantage of some low-cost funding for your business, or some other type of program, there likely is COVID-related money still there for that.

Tom Temin: And before we let you go, your weekly newsletter has a philosophic side of Larry that we often don’t hear about. And it’s titled “Sometimes there are more important things than government procurement.” Just give us your thoughts in 60 seconds there.

Larry Allen: Tom. We’re in the government procurement world, but people in government procurement world I find are exceptionally well-educated and very dedicated and savvy to their missions. But I think we all know that we’re part of a larger world that has missions that are, dare I say it, larger than government acquisition. There are a lot of things happening internationally and nationally right now. And what I’m writing about this week, is let’s take a pause. This is a good time of year to take a pause, look around, see what is happening to us as a community. The voices that are trying to tear people apart, the bombs and missiles that are trying to tear people apart. Maybe it’s time to come back and re-form our communities, so that we actually can more effectively do our day jobs. I think it’s important to know, we live in a larger world. We have responsibilities to that larger world just as we do to our daily routines.

Tom Temin: Larry Allen is president of Allen Federal Business Partners. Thanks so much.

Larry Allen: Tom. Thank you and I wish your listeners happy selling.

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