The current approach to awarding big multiple-award contracts is broken — here’s how to fix it

The General Services Administration’s 2GIT $5.5 billion IT services contract is facing its 13th bid protest while its Alliant 2 Small Business contract remain...

It’s been awhile since I’ve jumped back on my soap box, but after the latest news of protests delaying yet another large multiple award, governmentwide contract, it’s time to bring back the call for competition at the task order level.

The General Services Administration’s Second Generation IT (2GIT) services is facing four new bid protests making 13 overall since the agency launched the effort more than a year ago.

At the same time, GSA is facing more pressure to make a decision about the Alliant 2 small business vehicle that has been on hold for more than a year and in the works for almost five years. GSA officials have said multiple times over the past few weeks that a new information about Alliant 2 small business would be forthcoming “soon,” which in government talk means anywhere from one day to six months.

These are just two of latest examples of why large multiple award contracts should just make getting on the vehicle as easy as possible and then let the real competition happen at the task order level.

Instead, agencies are dragged down by an acquisition model that is well past its prime and no longer meets the needs of today’s marketplace for many reasons.

“Multiple award contracts certainly still serve an important purpose, but it’s time to have a more fundamental rethinking about how we engage them,” said Joe Jordan, a former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, and now CEO of Actuparo. “I spent quite a bit of time through strategic sourcing trying to figure out ways to leverage buying power at the contract level, and probably the biggest two takeaways were better pricing is not going to happen if you are not bringing dollars to the table when you are engaging the contract, and to retain many of these principles, pricing is determined at the task order level anyways so what is the point of spending years and years and millions of dollars of administration costs to set up these GWACs based on prices?”

Award-protest cycle continues

Take 2GIT — GSA and the Air Force are trying to replace the popular NETCENTS-2 IT products contract. GSA awarded 75 vendors, including 56 small firms, a spot on the $5.5 billion blanket purchase agreement contract in November.

After a series of protests, GSA pulled the awards back, took corrective action by amending the solicitation to change its evaluation approach, but didn’t request revised offers. Then, GSA made new awards to companies including DH Technologies, Sterling Computers, World Wide Technology, Govplace, M2 Technology, PCMG, New Tech and CDW-Government.

Read more: Reporter’s Notebook

By May 1, three unsuccessful bidders filed four protests. Red River Technology filed two protests —one on the changes GSA made to the solicitation and one for the award decision.

Force 3, which won a spot under the initial 2GIT awards, and Blue Tech filed protests about GSA’s award decision.

Shift over to the Alliant 2 Small Business contract and the situation becomes even more frustrating.

GSA in February 2018 made awards to 81 small businesses only to pull them back more than a year later. The agency took corrective action and accepted revised bids in August. Here we are in May, and no decision yet.

One industry expert, who requested anonymity so as not to harm their relationships with GSA, said the delays with Alliant Small Business 2 isn’t because of a lack of support for these companies.

“It’s big into the legal industrial complex and I’m sure GSA’s acquisition folks are trying. But the issues are complex and they are probably getting tangled up by GSA’s keystone cop of the legal department,” the expert said. “Too often lawyers become de facto management and start creating management positions instead of helping management build decisions based on risk.”

The expert said reviewing these large multiple award contracts in a consistent manner takes time and with lawyers watching over you, creates further delays.

Time-to-market takes too long

So what is stopping GSA from just setting the bar low enough to ensure no fake or severely unqualified companies get on the vehicle?

There doesn’t seem much . The Air Force with NetCents and the Navy with Seaport-e proved this approach works by having hundreds of companies and watching the competition at the task order level.  And given the success of both contracts, it doesn’t seem having hundreds or thousand of contractors is slowing down task order awards, like some have proposed as a reason for why “you just can’t let everyone on” a multiple award contract. Yes, too much competition is a problem.

Former OFPP Administrator Jordan said the current “time-to-market” for a lot of the large contracts is too long and could stifle agency technology innovation.

Read more: Contracting News

Again back to Alliant 2 Small Business, the contract requirements and bids are from late 2015 or early 2016, meaning things like artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics process automation were barely under discussion let alone in widespread use as they are today. To GSA’s credit, program managers have learned how to better ensure vehicles remain relevant in terms of technology offerings. But these now become a series of modifications after the awards are made, again creating more delays for agencies and vendors.

Jordan also gave GSA kudos for adding on-ramps to these large vehicles to keep enough vendors in the mix and ensure innovation is available.

“There is not a ton of discussion about whether this approach and the way we construct contracts make sense for the ever-evolving world,” he said. “We’ve spent too much time, and that includes my own past efforts, saying there are too many GWACs selling the same stuff and we need to reduce the number, and not enough time spent on what is the problem we are trying to solve. We have to take the time to look for a new solution for this issue.”

The irony of both of these procurements is the Office of Management and Budget “designated” Alliant 2 Small Business a “best-in-class” vehicle and I’m sure 2GIT wasn’t far from the same designation. Yet, here we are stuck in the morass of protests and delays because GSA or the rules or someone believes competition is best not at the task order level but during the construction of the contract.

GSA proposed legislative changes

The idea of moving competition to the task order level is not new by any means.

GSA submitted legislative proposals to make it easier to have competition at task order level, staring back in 2014 or so, according to the industry expert. And Administrator Emily Murphy made it one of  her initiatives during her confirmation hearing.

In the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, lawmakers added a provision that let’s GSA create an unpriced schedule, recognizing competition happens at the task order level.

Roger Waldron, the president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, wrote in his most recent blog that it’s been almost two years since Congress passed the provision, and as GSA reforms the schedules program, it should implement the idea known as unpriced schedules.

It’s clear this idea of driving competition at the task order level isn’t so far out. So what’s stopping GSA and other agencies from getting out of this protest, delay, protest cycle?

You tell me?

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