Change is hard vs. real problems: The tale of the beta.sam.gov portal

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In the three months since the General Services Administration transitioned to the beta.sam.gov portal for contract opportunities from the decades-old FedBizOpps.gov site, the raw numbers show concerns over the site have settled down.

The site has seen almost 900,000 visitors and 120,000 registered users since November. The number of calls to GSA’s help desk is at or below the levels that came in during the pre-transition time.

“We don’t get any more help desk calls or asks for intervention than we did with the legacy FBO. And the calls we do get are generally around two things: how to log in and do multi-factor authentication and the second is how to use the new search features because they look very different than the legacy site,” said Judith Zawatsky, assistant commissioner in the Office of Systems Management in GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service, in an interview with Federal News Network.

Judith Zawatsky is the assistant commissioner in the Office of Systems Management in GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service.

But if you dig deeper, particularly the folks who understand the inner workings of the new site, frustration and disappointment over the transition and functionality of beta.sam.gov continue.

The dissatisfaction came to a head last week when the Professional Services Council sent GSA a letter detailing complaints and concerns brought to them by their members.

The 22-page letter highlighted concerns around four main areas:

  • Access challenges;
  • Search Parameters;
  • The capability to receive contract information;
  • Difficulties in how the site displays information.

“[T]he new system has been judged by many of our member companies to be a far cry from its predecessor,” wrote Alan Chvotkin, the executive vice president and counsel for PSC. “And while the respondents included many mid-tier and large companies, feedback from many of our small businesses was particularly critical. The volume, consistency and detail of the responses we received demonstrate how vital this portal is to our partners.”

While some of what PSC highlighted, including questioning the need for multi-factor authentication and the way GSA set up the search terms are more about aesthetics and the need to get used to the new site, there are some real problems with beta.sam.gov.

Users not seeing the right data

“GSA didn’t go a good job bringing functionality to beta.sam.gov from FBO, like emailing opportunities,” said Amber Hart, co-founder of the Pulse of GovCon, a market intelligence firm, and an outspoken critic of beta.sam.gov, in an interview with Federal News Network. “We work in the back end of the system a lot, and there are a lot of complaints about how the opportunities are organized, how the contract awards are organized, whether you are pulling up everything that is part of an active procurement or not. The naming structure isn’t correct, information is not organized by date correctly and the search functionality is degrading.”

Hart offered one example of this problem. When a contractor wants to search all awards or all opportunities from a particular agency, but if the contracting officer puts in only a specific office that made the award, the system isn’t recognizing that the award should be part of the headquarters agency full listing. So the user may be missing important information because of the way GSA designed the system.

Lisa Mundt, who is the other co-founder Pulse of GovCon, said the federal hierarchy of agency listings do not match up, meaning there is a lack of standardization and that is affecting how the site is providing information.

“Most users are not seeing the data they expect and then they get frustrated. But there are technical reasons why they can’t trust the data and why need to rely on more expensive intelligence providers,” said Spence Witten, the vice president of global sales for Lunarline. “We have identified real issues on the back end that are not being fixed. We have heard nothing that is in GSA’s development pipeline to address many of these underlying concerns. It’s shades of Healthcare.gov but on a lesser skill. We are not getting warm fuzzies that they have figured it out.”

Agile approach to adding new capabilities

GSA is quick to admit beta.sam.gov isn’t perfect and there is plenty of room for improvement.

Zawatsky said her office’s list of new capabilities they want to add to the site is growing. Almost immediately after launch, GSA responded to user requests and it added the ability to receive email push notifications about new information.

“We are using an at-scale, agile development both process and deployment,” she said. “We have been working on several other things in order to be able to improve the site. In some cases, we are just now going through and designing some of the things. When we met with the users prior to developing the new interface, one of the things we heard is they wanted a lot more flexibility in our search capabilities and they wanted to set the parameters. That’s what we designed. What we found is people miss the old search parameters so the team has architected out moving back to some more defined search parameters as the default. We are in the process of testing those and getting ready to prioritize those for delivery.”

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At the same time, Zawatsky knows the user base is diverse so a change that makes one person happy could make another frustrated.

Vicky Niblett, the deputy assistant commissioner for the Integrated Award Environment (IAE) in GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service, said that is why GSA is constantly talking to and educating industry and contracting officers about the site’s functionalities.

She said since November GSA participated in more than 30 events targeting contractors and have another 10 planned in the next month.

“I spoke at the national 8(a) event and was quite encouraged by the feedback I received after the session. The favorite feedback I received was from a self-proclaimed complainer with the initial launch. He did tell me after hearing the session and after the time he’s had with the system, he is quite pleased with how things are with the system, especially after we released the functionality to provide email notifications for saved searches,” Niblett said. “Overall, what we are hearing is once we get out there and we are able to engage with the users and they have time to get used to the system and adjust to the change, they are feeling more comfortable with the system and being able to perform their job.”

Change is never easy

But Pulse of GovCon’s Hart and Mundt say GSA hasn’t done a good job listening to its users. They have tried on multiple occasions to offer feedback, to be a part of user testing, but their requests have gone unanswered.

Amber Hart is the co-founder of the Pulse of GovCon.

“We emailed them a lot of our concerns when the beta testing become public. We went to social media. We went to events. We submitted questions online, but never heard anything back,” Hart said. “Now we have been working on the back end so we understand how complicated the task is. And this is why it feels rushed and GSA didn’t take time to understand what industry needs. How can they replace FBO with a beta system that was not ready for launch and it’s still not? For a system that is incredibly important, it’s extremely irresponsible for them to launch this system that wasn’t ready.”

Other users of the beta.sam.gov attribute the frustrations to the issue that change is hard.

Roger Waldron, the president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, said GSA has been receptive to his members’ feedback and is working hard to address any concerns.

Kevin Plexico, the senior vice president of information solutions for Deltek, a market research firm, said the firm’s analysts run into some minor frustrations, but the transition hasn’t had a huge impact on how they pull data.

“I think there is a bit of both frustration over problems and the fact people don’t like change,” he said. “I think because companies’ revenue generation is at stake when they are held up by the site and there is a potential economic loss if they miss an opportunity, the frustration seems great.”

Plexico said Deltek is watching GSA’s next transition of data reports that run in the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation and now will run through beta.sam.gov.

He said if those reports don’t work or if there are problems, the uproar will be as great or greater than the move of Fedbizopps.gov to beta.sam.gov.

Testing underway for FPDS-NG

Zawatsky said her office is aware of the importance of the FPDS-NG reports generating capability and is taking steps to mitigate any risks.

“We are testing the existing ad hoc reporting capabilities and getting ready for the March migration,” she said. “We’ve worked a great deal with users who have a substantial amount of ad hoc reports prior to the migration to make sure that they understood. We’ve used robotics process automation (RPA) to be able to migrate over the existing ad hoc reports and data. It is incredibly innovative work. The other thing we are doing because we knew there was latency on system last time and we know migrating of the reports will drive greater usage on the platform. We know historically how many people pull a report or go into the reporting feature on FPDS, and we are designing for many, many times that load. But in the first day or two and everyone jumps in there and there is 20 times that load, that’s not something we can architect to because that is not what the sustainable usage will be. But the team is designing for a heavy push in the beginning so that do not cause any issues with access to the system.”

As for beta.sam.gov, Zawatsky said GSA is listening to industry feedback both through the help desk and through the feedback button on the site to continually improve the functionality.

“If somebody is having a problem, we definitely want people to call the help desk. We have a large team of people there who can give very standard answers and people who can escalate problems and provide help,” she said. “The feedback mechanism, however, is not a help desk. You will not get a response back from someone. We’ve gone through PSC’s list of things brought to our attention and we are looking at it to determine where we can educate the public and users, and where there are opportunities to enhance the system to ensure people are able to compete for opportunities.”