GSA’s e-commerce initiative strained by new protests, questions over supply chain risks

The House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations pushed the General Services Administration for answers over how it will ensure e-commerce p...

There was a flurry of lawmakers seemingly troubled, disappointed and disturbed about the lack of governmentwide progress to move to the Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS) contract.

While the reality is most of the lawmakers probably had never heard of EIS until their staff explained to them 10 minutes before the hearing started that it’s a way for agencies to modernize their voice, video and data services, the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations created at least an newsworthy façade last week.

The hearing also ferreted out a host of other valuable news nuggets about several of the General Services Administration’s technology services.

As one never to let a good almost 90-minute hearing go to waste, the subcommittee pressed GSA on the status and future of its e-commerce platform initiative.

About an hour into the hearing, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., ranking member of the subcommittee and the incoming chief of staff for President Donald Trump, asked what seemed like a simple question about GSA’s e-commerce platform initiative.

Bill Zielinski is GSA’s assistant commissioner for the Office of Information Technology Category.

“Are you going to have the two awardees by the end of the month?” Meadows asked.

Bill Zielinski, GSA’s assistant commissioner for the Office of Information Technology Category, said the goal is to make the award in the springtime if not by the end of the month.

But then as Meadows pushed harder about meeting deadlines, Zielinski revealed yet another challenges for the program.

“Currently, we do have several protests that we are working through that impact or effect when we will be able to issue that award,” he said.

That answer perked the ears up of most people who are following the e-commerce effort. We had reported on two protests—one at the agency level by Amazon and another to the Government Accountability Office by Overstock—but Zielinski’s reveal was quite shocking.

So now this procurement has faced five protests despite GSA’s best intentions to hear from industry, gather their feedback and write a solicitation that made sense.

“We have received a number of protests and the three that remain are asking us to reassess their proposals that were submitted,” Zielinski said.

After the hearing, Zielinski confirmed these are agency-level protests as opposed to the vendors going to GAO or the Court of Federal Claims. GSA declined to provide any further details on who is protesting or the timeline of when it would resolve the protests.

Zielinski told the committee that GSA is hopeful to make the award for the platform by the end of March or shortly thereafter.

GSA already decided the Amazon protest and ended up amending the solicitation. Overstock dropped its protest earlier this month.

More concerns than just protests

The protests are just the tip of the challenge for GSA to get this portal off the ground.

Rep. Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I., asked about how GSA will ensure agencies comply with AbilityOne requirements, which mandate agencies purchase certain products from companies in the program.

Zielinski said the e-commerce platform doesn’t relieve agencies of their responsibilities to meet the mandates of AbilityOne.

“Part of the requirements for the portal providers is to ensure that we have insight into what is being purchased and they are specifically able to identify where and when a purchase card holder is looking at items that fall under the AbilityOne program and ensure they are made aware that those are items available through AbilityOne,” he said. “As part of the proposals, the portal providers are required to tell us how they will do so. There is a second part, we will need to work closely with AbilityOne to ensure that their providers are aware of the program and that they are fully participating as well.”

Plaskett pushed further on other laws and regulations required under the portal.

Zielinski said agencies still will have to meet all current acquisition laws and regulations if using the portal; however, he didn’t say how GSA would enforce or require them to do so through the portal.

Concerns over how the portal will meet AbilityOne requirements and other acquisition regulations could be relegated to the back-burner if GSA can’t ensure the portal providers address supply chain concerns.

The White House issued an executive order aimed at e-commerce providers like Amazon, and others, some of which are expected to bid on GSA’s solicitation.

Plaskett pushed for answers from GSA as well on how the EO and e-commerce platform program can co-exist.

“It goes back to the information and data we will collect through the commercial platform that is currently not available. As agencies are making their purchases online today, we don’t have access to information that allows us to test and check,” Zielinski said. “We are looking to utilize the commercial best practices, work with the Department of Homeland Security and the recommendations they have made for e-commerce platforms and actually incorporating automation to where when there has been identified providers of these products that are counterfeit or barred or removed, that the platform will be able to utilize that information to prevent them from being available to customers.”

Supply chain risk management shortcomings

But with the proof of concept expected to launch this year, GSA has a long way to go.

GAO’s Carol Harris, the director of IT acquisition management issues, said her office has ongoing work about civilian agencies’ supply chain risk management processes, and GSA is behind.

“GSA, of seven major NIST practices, has not implemented any at this time. There are some draft guidance that they have in place, but there is nothing that has been institutionalized at the organization right now,” Harris said. “That is in-combination with the deployment of this online marketplace. These risk management practices are internal to GSA so this is what GSA should be following as they procure their own goods and services to ensure they are not counterfeit or compromised in any way. But in order to vet offerings on this marketplace, they should have a robust process. So if the internal process is still in its infancy, then we have to be very cautious as we move forward with GSA deploying an online marketplace for the federal government.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., chairman of the subcommittee, said while he finds the e-commerce platform concept exciting, agencies have little to no room for failure on something like this.

“It seems to me that it’s worthy of heeding the advice and analysis of GAO here to try to get this right at the ground level so that we can realize the potential I think it has,” he said. “We will be very interested in that. We want to be supportive of that. We just want to make sure it has more than a fighting chance once it takes off to be successful.”

Meadows echoed Connolly’s comments about GSA’s preparation for the e-commerce portal and pushing for a more open initiative.

“I’m concerned because I’ve seen so many great plans that we were going to save money, not just on IT, but across the agency. The minute the federal government gets involved we have real problems. With this portal, the fact that you have protests, is it a protest…of access to the portal?” Meadows asked in the last question of the hearing. “The only way to get efficiencies is to allow the free flow of people to come in an actually compete. Otherwise, it becomes another bureaucratic portal that says, ‘If you have figured out our maze and you are able to figure your way in,’ you actually get in and what happens, prices actually don’t go down, but go up.”

If there was some good news that came from this hearing for the e-commerce portal, it was about agency interest in using it.

Zielinski told the subcommittee that GSA has met with more than a dozen agencies, and received commitment from several to work with them to help drive requirements and to participate in the program.

It’s a good sign for the e-commerce platform initiative that agencies and other members of Congress are interested in the program, but the fact that there are three more agency-level protests and confusion over the executive order continues to hang a dark cloud over the effort.

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