Protests might be choking off the government’s most popular acquisition vehicles

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Few acquisition methods have proven as popular with agency buyers than indefinite delivery-indefinite quantity contracts. Known affectionately as IDIQs. Protests, though, have killed off at least one planned IDIQ, and threaten delay or stop a couple of others. With more on this unfortunate trend, federal sales and marketing consultant Larry Allen joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And Larry, from your latest writings, you seem worried about a couple of very big signature IDIQs coming out?

Larry Allen: Tom, I think there’s reason to be concerned. When you get one program, you and I have talked previously about what happened to GSA’s Small Business companion contract, reliant, it never made it off the launch pad due to protests. That’s one thing. But you’re looking now at other major procurements. NIH has its CIOSP4 contract, that has over two dozen protests right now. And we’re still in the pre-award phase, Tom, we haven’t even addressed what happens after unsuccessful offerors might do a post award protest. And then you look across the street at the Department of Homeland Security,, their large vehicle for small businesses, first source, first source 2, it’s been delayed right now by protests for six months and counting. We saw this problem way back in the mid 1990s, you and I, when you had agencies that were doing single award contracts on these large IDIQs, but now, even in a multiple award arena, you’re seeing months long delays that cost both industry and government millions of dollars on protests. And there’s a ability to protest that’s kind of unique and government contracting. And overall, I think that’s a net good thing. But it really is jeopardizing the ability of these largely IDIQs to function as they’re intended to.

Tom Temin: Yeah, you make a good point because those IDIQs of the 90s, I remember the desktop series by the Air Force was 1-2-3-4, I think there was a desktop 5, I can’t remember now. But those were going to one or maybe two vendors at the most. And so the stakes were enormous. In this case, like CIOSP4, which has now reopened to bidding, just within the past day or so you have hundreds, potentially, of contractors that are going to be on this IDIQ, which does make it puzzling why they try to stop the agency in the infancy of these things.

Larry Allen: Well, one of the common threads that all of these have together, Tom, is that most of these protests are all driven by small business over small business issues. And look, I’m a big small business advocate, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great. But you can’t not look at the commonality here. And there really seems to be a struggle going on in these large contracting agencies between attracting small businesses who you want to attract, and yet being able to make sure that the small businesses you’re attracting are capable of meeting the government’s needs, are capable of functioning on the contract that they’re bidding on. So it’s open for small businesses, but not all small businesses are created equal, some more experienced than others. I think the ones that get frustrated and think that they were just going to be able to walk on, they seem to be the ones to file the protests. And that really slows things down. And ultimately, it can hurt just as many small businesses as it helps. Maybe even more.

Tom Temin: I think there might be the dynamic that small businesses feel empowered to challenge these things, in part because the Biden administration has such ambitious goals for small business, so the atmosphere is good. But on the other hand, when you get to the individual agency solicitation level, you’ve got to follow the rules of the solicitation and the specific regulations as they exist, which may or may not mitigate in favor of a particular small business. So you’ve got the big policy driving them towards this. But yet the reality on the ground means in some cases, you don’t qualify.

Larry Allen: And the issuing agencies in some of these cases, have not done themselves any favors. NIH had to go back and consistently redo how it would count and score previous experience from small business teams. That was a source of a lot of the protests. If you look at first source at DHS, they put in a brand new set of requirements for certifications that bidders would have to have, that caught a lot of small businesses by surprise, and DHS had hinted that they might put those requirements in the final RFP, but they actually didn’t appear until the final RFP. And that caused a lot of small businesses to say, wait, that’s unduly restrictive of competition, we can’t compete on that, we’re going to protest. And so you see that here, you see the agencies have that desire to try to be innovative, or try to be real clear to your client about what it is they’re looking for. The message either isn’t getting across in a timely manner, or just isn’t getting across at all.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners. And then if there’s no IDIQ, there’s always the BPA. And now, I guess, in a sign of how mature the cloud market is becoming, GSA is moving ahead with a cloud BPA. Tell us about that one.

Larry Allen: Tom, this was something that industry was initially pretty skeptical about. And I think there’s still some skepticism because GSA does have all manner of IDIQ contracts in place right now to deliver a full array of cloud services. But the agency is kind of saying to industry, look, that may be true, but customer agencies are coming to us and saying we want customized cloud solutions for our agency. And it’s tough to do that. If you constantly have to modify something at the contract level, you might have to do a new procurement, you might have to do a whole host of work, rather than why don’t we just set up a group of blanket purchase agreements against the GSA schedule. BPAs are much more customizable. If we need to tailor make the solution, we can tweak the BPA so it’s in scope of the original award, it’s much easier to manage and tailor make a BPA solution than it is a contract level solution. So that’s what I think GSA is really up to, it really kind of shows the flexibility, again, Tom, of the schedules program, because you’ve got all these contracts out there. And yet, not everybody wants the soup to nuts solutions that are on some of these larger contracts. They want to do the cafeteria approach to cloud, as we’ve seen them take a cafeteria approach to other solutions in the past. And the schedules program has that flexibility. So that’s a very good thing.

Tom Temin: And speaking of the schedules program, the consolidation is largely done now. And that took a while but it was kind of a revolutionary change for the venerable schedule system, which, what was it, go back to the 60s, I guess a long time. What do you expect to see for the good old schedules, as we head into 2022? Not a lot of signals yet from GSA.

Larry Allen: In time, I think the big thing about the GSA schedules program as it continues to be highly popular, it may not get the same degree of hype as a new IDIQ. For one thing, the schedules program is perpetually open to new offerors. So it’s not like there’s a sense of urgency that says we’ve got to get our bids in by a certain day or we have to get our teams together so that we can bid on time, you can always submit an offer to get on the schedule. So from that perspective, it kind of flies a little low under the radar. But at the end of every fiscal year when GSA tallies up the amount of business that’s gone through the scheduled contracts, you see their versatility and their popularity. IT and professional services certainly lead the way, Tom, they are by far the most popular parts of the schedules program. And what used to be the IT schedule, now it’s all kind of rolled in together, is still the largest single IDIQ contract to buy information technology. And that’s really a testament to GSA working with its partners for flexible solutions, having plenty of options on schedule, making it easier for customers to find solutions on schedule. I expect good things in 2022 for the schedules program.

Tom Temin: Larry Allen is president of Allen Federal Business Partners. As always, thanks so much,

Larry Allen: Tom, thank you. I wish your listeners happy selling.

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