GSA’s acquisition strategy for new contracting writing system surprises some vendors

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A little over two weeks ago at an event hosted by AFFIRM, Alan Thomas, the commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service at the General Services Administration, promised to have the acquisition strategy for a new contract writing system completed in a week or so.

Thomas’ group delivered on that promise, but the decision to move the Contract Acquisition Life-Cycle Management (CALM) system under the yet-to-be awarded IT services procurement vehicle known as COMET may have been a bit surprising.

Industry sources, who all requested anonymity in order to talk about a procurement they may be bidding on, say while in many ways it makes sense to move CALM under COMET, it’s also a decision that should’ve come more than a month ago and is a little frustrating.

Industry sources say some companies were planning on bidding on the contract writing system that could be a proof-of-concept for one that is eventually offered governmentwide. But those same companies may not have bid on the CIO Modernization and Enterprise Transformation (COMET) vehicle, but would’ve if they had known about GSA’s plan to not issue CALM as a standalone procurement or through another existing vehicle like Alliant 2.

Thomas confirmed the possibility that if successful, CALM could be expanded to other agencies during the AFFIRM event.

Alan Thomas is the commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service at GSA.

“I had this conversation with friends at the Office of Management and Budget. They said, ‘let’s do something for the whole government.’ I said, ‘that’d be great, but we don’t even use one thing for ourselves, and what we use is kind of old and all our folks are grumbling about it so I don’t want to sell that to somebody else,’” Thomas said. “My thought was let’s use ourselves and our 1,000 1102s [contracting officers] as the place to show how to do it and do it right, and from there, if it has applicability beyond that, great, we can talk about it. But we are not a credible provider until we are doing it ourselves.”

But GSA’s decision to compete the contract writing system on COMET makes it impossible for some vendors to bid on CALM now as a prime because the due date for proposals for COMET was early July.

GSA released the solicitation for COMET on June 18 with a goal of creating a multiple award blanket purchase agreement on top of IT schedule 70. GSA says it plans to make between 10 and 12 awards with at least 25% of them being set aside for small businesses. The BPA will ask vendors to provide a host of IT services, including operations and maintenance, cloud and the continued development and support of the acquisition systems portal called beta.SAM.gov. GSA plans to take a three-step approach to the evaluation of contractors, including an in-person technical challenge. In April, GSA issued the RFP for the first and much smaller part of COMET focused on architecture, engineering and advisory support.

GSA released a draft request for quotes for CALM on July 8, and held an industry day webinar Aug. 6 to announce its acquisition strategy.

The decision to use COMET for the contracting writing system seemed to come from the feedback GSA received on the draft request for quotes (RFQ). Responses also highlighted everything from the length of CALM — 10 years — to the need to clarify the cloud security requirements, to incorporating standards from the Unified Shared Services Management office.

Contract writing system timeline delayed

A summary of the themes that came out in the responses, which the agency gave to vendors at the webinar, said contractors were concerned about whether bidding on COMET would’ve precluded them from bidding on CALM.

“GSA stated that a shift toward utilizing the new COMET vehicle for the CALM procurement provides them the time to re-engage with industry and enable a more robust procurement,” said one industry source. “This is a great example of government taking a more holistic approach in order to more effectively plan for long-term needs.”

In the industry presentation, which Federal News Network obtained, GSA says “using COMET would reduce industry organization conflict-of-interest concerns; enable the purchase of a total solution (product and service); give CALM team more time to refine requirements and re-engage with industry on a revised draft CALM; and gives CALM a permanent home.”

GSA says CALM timeline will take 3-to-6 months longer, in part because GSA has to change the procurement to an agile task order from a blanket purchase agreement.

During the industry day webinar, GSA says it expects to award COMET in October and award CALM by winter 2020 with the first set of capabilities coming in spring 2020.

“I think it is the right move considering this is an effort to modernize their existing portfolio that is in scope for COMET. It also makes it easier for integration and also reduces overhead for GSA,” said a second industry source.

Thomas said CALM will replace the 35 to 45 different applications contracting officers use today to write and manage procurements.

“We have to have a similar core system that stores all our data and has a set of common business processes. We are working on that and it will be a big improvement for the workforce,” he said. “My tag line is there are only a few kinds of investments we can make in our people and one of them is we can put great tools in their hands. If we put great tools in their hands, they will go out and do a good job serving customers and the results will follow from there.”

CALM is expected to be one of those great tools that Thomas is referring to.

Over the next few months, GSA will send a second draft solicitation out for comment and feedback, and then finalize CALM’s acquisition strategy once it awards COMET.

Let’s hope GSA works closely with the other agencies who recently awarded contracts for contract writing systems, specifically the Navy and the Army. It’s less about using the same system and more about ensuring data and technology standards can be easily shared and integrated no matter the back-end systems.

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