In this space two weeks ago, we told you about a Defense Department decision with regard to the General Services Administration’s schedules program that’s raised a lot of eyebrows among vendors.
To recap: DoD issued a “class deviation” from the existing language of the Federal Acquisition Regulation, removing a shortcut that used to let contracting officers make purchases of $3,000 or less without making their own determinations about whether or not the price was reasonable. The presumption, up until now, has been that since GSA has already negotiated prices at the contract level, it’s not necessary for agency customers to repeat their work when they place an individual order.
Schedule holders are not happy. In part, they worry that adding any layer of bureaucracy to the purchases could drive business to other vehicles and make the entire Federal Supply Schedules program less relevant.
In the time since we wrote that original piece, Dick Ginman, DoD’s director of procurement and acquisition policy sat down with me at the Pentagon to explain his rationale for the change. You can listen to the full interview here.
Ginman told me he decided the move was necessary because he kept hearing from instructors in DoD’s acquisition schoolhouses that whenever they admonished students to seek discounts from vendors, the students would point to the section of the FAR in question and argue that they didn’t need to concern themselves with pricing — GSA had already taken care of that.
“‘I got that I’m encouraged to ask for discounts, but if I’m busy and overloaded, and it says I don’t need to it, then I can fall back on the FAR,'” as Ginman paraphrased the line of thinking. “Well, they do need to do it. What I wanted was that sentence taken out. I expect you to determine the price is fair and reasonable, other than, ‘Here’s the catalog price, just take it.'” Ginman says he believes that’s exactly what’s been happening — contracting officers have been buying the first item they spot on the schedules that meets their needs, without comparing prices.
“The price range on the schedules can be 70, 80, 90, 200 percent. The day after I issued this, we got an unsolicited email giving an example of a stapler, and the same nationally stock numbered item is listed on the schedule at $11 and $31,” he said. “I gotta tell you, I really don’t want to pay $31 for the same stapler I could buy for $11. A lot of what we buy is just standard everyday commercial items. At the end of the day, we buy 3.5 million actions worth of this stuff a year, and it adds up. We’re in an arena with decreasing budgets, and I’d really like people to think about cost.”
Ginman said he’d be fine with leaving the existing language alone if DoD’s buyers were paying attention to another line in that same FAR clause, which reads: “Although GSA has already negotiated fair and reasonable pricing, ordering activities may seek additional discounts before placing an order.” But he insists that too many of them haven’t been, so he says he’s supportive of the FAR council making the same change he did — only governmentwide.
He also made it clear he believes vendors’ concerns about the change are unfounded.
“I don’t think I’m asking people to do a lot of work. I’m asking them to use their head,” he said. “How hard is it, when you’re on the Internet and you’re looking at a stapler to get a second price? Ten seconds? It’s not like I’m telling people to go do another 20 hours of work for this $3 or $4 item. Just pay attention to what you’re doing.”
And Ginman also pushed back against the notion that his action would have a detrimental effect on the schedules program.
“I’m still going to buy it from the schedules, I’m just going to buy it for $11 instead of $31. If the person who has it listed at $31 really wants to sell on the schedules, maybe they ought to change their price to be competitive with someone else.”
NGA goes open source
The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency says it’s the first member of the U.S. intelligence community to join GitHub, the hugely-popular open source software repository and collaboration site.
For now, NGA’s contributions to the open source community are pretty sparse. It’s released only one software package so far: a geographic data tasking system called GeoQ that’s designed to run inside a virtual machine. NGA was able to release the source code because it owns the data rights to the package after having developed it in-house with help from the Mitre Corporation and FEMA.
“It enables us along with our first responders to merge multiple sources of imagery, whether it’s commercial, handheld, news broadcasts, and do it very quickly,” Letitia Long, NGA’s director said at this week’s annual GEOINT conference in Tampa, Fla. “After having put this on GitHub, I’m sure it’s going to become better every single day. I think it’s a great example of how we can be innovative.”
Other federal agencies have taken the step of emancipating their custom-made software into the wild, and for similar reasons. The most notable example may be the Department of Veterans Affairs, which released the code to its entire electronic health record system, VistA, with the explicit purpose of enlisting outside talent to help modernize the system.
Feds want to unshackle commercial satellite imagery
Speaking of geospatial data, another tidbit of news from this week’s GEOINT conference: the intelligence community thinks it’s time to relax the federal rules that ban satellite imagery companies from selling their ultra-high quality images in the commercial marketplace.
The announcement by James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, comes a few months after the Senate included language in the intelligence community’s annual authorization bill that urged the IC to loosen the rules, which were in place to keep a wide margin between the imagery available to intelligence agencies and what potential adversaries have access to.
“We have reached an intelligence community consensus on allowing higher resolution for commercial providers, and we’ve submitted our recommendation to the White House and it’ll still need to go through the interagency process because the State Department, Defense, Commerce, etc. also need to weigh in,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, it certainly bodes well for the industry.”
Under the current rules, only the government can buy imagery that’s better than 0.5 meter resolution, meaning every pixel in the image represents half a meter on the ground. Last year, Digital Globe asked regulators for permission to begin selling images that are twice as accurate: up to 0.25 meter resolution, but Clapper didn’t specify how far the IC’s recommendation would go.
Military prepares to bid adieu to the SME-PED
When DoD first rolled out the Secure Mobile Environment-Personal Electronic Device (SME-PED) six years ago, it was a pretty big deal. For the first time, senior officials could access secret-level networks from just about anywhere, and the custom-made SME-PED has been DoD’s only widely-deployed mobile device for classified communications ever since.
But the venerable SME-PED has lost its luster, because, well, it’s a 2008-era handheld: while the rest of the world has moved on to 4G data rates, the SME-PED is tied to 2G technology. And it costs upward of $3,000 per unit (plus an extra $100 if you want a car charger), not including wireless service.
The device will reach its scheduled end of life this year, and as Navy CIO Terry Halvorsen pointed out in a recent memo, the military services are expecting the Defense Information Systems Agency to start a large-scale rollout of a new breed of handhelds. A secure version of the Samsung Galaxy S4 is already approved for secret-level data under the Defense Mobile Classified Capability program, and DISA expects to start deploying the devices in the coming months. DISA’s also using the Motorola 4G Razr Maxx for top-secret communications in a new pilot program, but only for voice calls.
Eventually, the military services will take over responsibility for buying their own classified devices, but for now, DISA is handling procurement and everything else in a sort of mobility-as-a-service model. It’s Defense customers will pay about $137 per month, per device. The charge includes the device itself, the wireless service plan and all support.