GSA takes the easy way out to solve contracting challenge

The General Services Administration’s choice to create a blanket purchase agreement for Salesforce cloud integration and support services on the surface seems logical.

It’s a widely used platform — according to a simple search on USASpending.gov website there have been 227 contracts worth more than $61 million since fiscal 2011— and one that needs more structure and control across government.

“The marketplace for Salesforce implementation and integration services was fragmented and had some disparity in there,” said David Shive, GSA’s chief information officer during a press call on Jan. 20. “When we looked, we saw there were no established quality standards for Salesforce development. We saw there were inexperienced vendors that were winning with new Salesforce customers, but sometimes had some dubious results coming out from those inexperienced vendors. We saw there was inconsistent delivery of code and configuration from agency to agency. There was failed implementations that was negatively impacting adoption of the tools and the processes surrounding those tools. And we saw that some vendors were rebuilding the same apps for the same agency and were developing closed systems in an otherwise open environment.”

GSA announced the award of the BPA to six vendors in December. The five-year contract has a ceiling of $503 million.

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But when you look a bit deeper, it seems a bit odd for GSA to pick one vendor tool to establish a multiple-award BPA for services around. Nearly every BPA is for a specific set of IT services, whether cybersecurity such as the Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation (CDM) or 18F’s agile or GSA’s own performance management services and tools. GSA also has established enterprise licenses agreements with specific vendors, but that’s a straight commodity play, and not necessarily for services.

Additionally, Salesforce has plenty of competitors in the federal market whether it’s SAP or Microsoft or others offering similar cloud platforms and customer relationship management tools.

About 4,800 vendors are on Schedule 70, so it’s unclear why GSA didn’t establish a broader contract that included several vendors offering an assortment of tools. It could have even developed a contract that was Salesforce heavy in terms of winners’ capabilities, but still was focused on the services agencies want as opposed to one that was focused on only one vendor’s tools.

In some ways, GSA is giving Salesforce a leg up on its competition. This seems to go against the stated goal of category management, which is to educate and inform agencies as they do market research.

When I asked GSA and other agencies about the Salesforce-only BPA, their answers were less than satisfying.

“There’s a lot of different vehicles out there that can tackle pretty much anything,” said Mark Naggar, the IT Vendor Management Specialist in the Department of Health and Human Services’ CIO’s office. “One of the basic points here was that there was a need for really specific Salesforce integration services. We talked about the failure rates and the value in trying to mitigate risks where possible so in this particular case, it really just goes to the [cloud] working group deciding the need, looking at what was out there and there was a gap in this space. We thought this would serve the community well. The alternative would be to having a very broad, open approach is that you may not have the proficiency, if you look at the evaluation factors, these companies have, and that’s really very robust and strong going in going in an agile fashion. When you add all those up, it really just leads to being the best decision we felt.”

Rusty Pickens, a senior adviser for digital platforms in the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs and former deputy director for new media technologies at the White House, said when he worked at the White House, they needed specific Salesforce services and it was difficult to find the vendors that were good enough. The BPA will make it easier for agencies to find that expertise in Salesforce that they need.

But the problem Naggar and Pickens described isn’t a contract challenge, it’s a contracting officer or mission problem in developing the right evaluation criteria and eliminating those vendors that aren’t the best of the best in implementing Salesforce or any other technology tool or platform.

If agencies are hiring unqualified vendors, the answer isn’t a new contract, but instead providing better training for acquisition workers.

Unfortunately, developing a new contract is a common approach by agencies, because it’s too easy and assumed to be less costly.

GSA’s decision to go with a BPA seems to follow a series of questionable calls by agencies who are avoiding training. Remember the Defense Department and NASA’s decision last year to deviate from the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) when it comes to the price competitiveness of GSA Schedules, their answer was a new regulation, again, instead of ensuring the acquisition workforce is well equipped to do their job.

But no one talked about training or even creating a series of online tools for contracting officers to learn how to make better technology procurement decisions.

GSA could’ve easily asked the 4,800 IT vendors under Schedule 70 to submit qualifications that make them “platinum” service providers for Salesforce, and then highlight them on the schedule to ease market research for other agencies.

Mary Davie, GSA’s assistant commissioner of the Office of Integrated Technology Services in the Federal Acquisition Service, said this issue of whether or not to create a new contract came up during the cloud working group meetings.

“The working group discussed all that and came up with some really good criteria that allowed for broad participation but also making sure they would get the high quality vendors they needed and not have to figure this out every time they write an order,” Davie said.

She added the BPA also will save agencies money in the administrative area and by leveraging spending across multiple agencies.

The good news about this BPA is GSA isn’t charging any extra fees beyond the 0.75 percent for its use.

Davie said GSA is working with the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and other agencies to develop similar contracts for other popular software tools.

She said the category management leadership council has identified where agencies are spending the most money on specific software vendors and aims to put together at least two of these contracts each year.

Davie said another similar contract like the one for Salesforce is for wireless devices and services, which lets agencies aggregate minutes or data.

“We are trying to tackle things a little bit differently that gives some agencies benefits in a way that maybe they wouldn’t have had it if they would’ve just done it themselves,” she said. “When we do some of the software enterprise license agreements, like ESRI’s, which we also just completed with some changes to their schedule with terms and conditions, that will allow for some new things agencies didn’t have access to before. We are continuing to look at each one of these that way.”

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