Acquisition roundup: Unpriced schedules on the horizon? SSA, Library of Congress lose protests

General Services Administration customers are still unhappy with the Advantage platform.

The Defense and Energy departments and NASA really are the only ones paying contractors when they can’t work because of the coronavirus pandemic.

And the Government Accountability Office decides in favor of the plaintiffs in two protests that could have some lasting impact on federal acquisition.

Welcome to another episode of “As the Acquisition World Turns.”

Like the soap opera’s 54-year run, the acquisition community sees its share of repeating story lines, surprising twists and turns and, of course, maybe even a villain or two.

Let’s start with the repeating story line. GSA’s customers continue to be unhappy with certain aspects of the online buying platform Advantage.

Julie Dunne, the commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service at GSA, wrote in a blog post that the results of their 2020 Customer Satisfaction Survey of more than 2,500 respondents found the three most common concerns, all of which present significant barriers to the purchase products listed are:

  • Missing or confusing product descriptions : Seven percent of responses indicated that customers struggled with incomplete or inaccurate product information, while 15.1% found the product information confusing.
  • Out of stock items appearing in search results: Nine percent of customers stated product availability is an area for improvement.
  • Missing or inaccurate product photos: Five percent of our customers’ responses indicated acquisition challenges related to missing or inaccurate product photographs.
Julie Dunne is the commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service at GSA.

“Analysis of customer comments in these categories continues to show significant pain points impacting the customer shopping experience,” Dunne wrote. “Of the three categories of concern identified above, product photo accuracy leads the field with inaccurate or confusing product description tied for the second spot. We know there are more than 15 million products on GSA Advantage! with no photos. Almost 37 million products use repeat photos (e.g. company logos) instead of actual product photos.”

These problems are not new. Back in 2011, GSA promised to make navigation and search easier, add more product details and add features like brochures, installation instructions and demonstrations of the product.

In 2018, former FAS Commissioner Alan Thomas also said customers are driving changes to Advantage and other acquisition tools. While some changes have occurred for the better, like the use of order level materials (OLMs) under schedule contracts and schedule consolidation, problems with Advantage remains a long-running story line.

Dunne recognizes the ongoing challenges and promised to fix the problems.

“In the near term, we need your help to improve the customer experience by reviewing and updating your product photos and product descriptions on GSA Advantage. Together, I know we can do better,” she wrote. “Looking forward, we will be addressing these types of concerns and improving the customer experience through GSA’s Catalog Management initiative. This initiative is focused on improving the policies, processes, and systems used to manage catalogs so customers have access to accurate and up-to-date information (including using manufacturer-originating information) to offer consistent product descriptions and improved product photos.”

Despite the frustrations, agencies continue to use GSA Advantage and get better pricing than commercial platforms like Amazon.

As many have said before, fixing Advantage seems to be the right move as it remains popular and valuable for agencies to use. The question always comes back to how quickly can GSA fix it?

Unpriced schedules coming?

And speaking of pricing, GSA also released an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking to gain feedback on how it will implement Section 876 authority of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act to remove price as an evaluation factor for some acquisition vehicles. In soap opera talk, this is the long-lost brother/sister coming back — one of those moments when you say, “this can’t be happening?”

Mark Lee, the assistant commissioner of the Office of Policy and Compliance in FAS, wrote in a Sept. 1 blog post that the goal of the ANPR is to “determine when use of this authority represents the best acquisition strategy for our contract vehicles.”

Lee wrote that the final rule eventually will make it easier for:

  • Customers to realize better value and savings;
  • The FAS acquisition workforce to focus on helping customers achieve robust competition at the order level; and
  • Suppliers to obtain FAS acquisition vehicle contracts.

GSA took the first step to use the authority in the ASTRO solicitation in late August.

Lee said GSA knows agency and industry customers want to apply the authority to the schedules program too.

Mark Lee is the assistant commissioner of the Office of Policy and Compliance in the Federal Acquisition Service at GSA.

“We want your input to identify when implementation of this authority would represent the best acquisition strategy,” he wrote.

Roger Waldron, the president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, wrote in a blog post that the implementation of 876 would “focus the FSS program on commercial best practices, continuing the march away from bureaucratic, non-competitive practices, like cost-build negotiations of contract service rates. Section 876 will have a cascading impact, reducing burdensome administrative contract costs, allowing customer agencies and industry to focus on competition for and performance of mission requirements.”

Comments are due by Friday, Sept. 18.

3610 usage is small

In a plot twist of sorts, the Government Accountability Office reported on Sept. 3 that only DoD and NASA have taken advantage of the authorities in Section 3610 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. This lets agencies pay a contractor for the cost of paid leave incurred during the pandemic so that it can maintain its workforce in a ready state.

While vendors demanded this authority and Congress complied, GAO reviewed seven agencies and found DoD is the only agency to spend significant money to keep vendors ready through July 2020. Of the $22 million paid to contractors by three agencies, the Pentagon accounted for $18.3 million.

“With the exceptions of DoD and Department of Energy, agency officials we met with either did not expect a large amount or were uncertain about the level of future requests for reimbursements under section 3610,” GAO stated. “DoD officials told us that, in July 2020, several large defense contractors provided DoD with rough order of magnitude estimates of the impact that COVID-19-related actions had on their businesses — including the amount of paid leave they provided to their employees — that were generally in line with the [$1 billion] figure. DoD officials cautioned, however, that these estimates were not formal requests for reimbursement, nor were they accompanied by supporting documentation. DoE officials told us they also expected a significant cost impact due to contractor requests for section 3610 reimbursement.”

GAO said part of the issue with the implementation of 3610 had been a lack of consistent policy, but auditors say the Office of Management and Budget addressed the problems in early July with new guidance. Still, that caused some initial slowdown in 3610 usage.

SSA, LoC messed up evaluations

Turning to the villain in our story, Oracle, which seems to like to play the role of foil, Mythics and AT&T won protests at GAO stopping procurements at the Library of Congress and the Social Security Administration, respectively.

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Of course, who the real villain is in this story depends on where you sit. If the Library of Congress had, say, followed the Federal Acquisition Regulations and not asked for brand name in their $150 million cloud procurement or at least written a brand name justification, then maybe this story wouldn’t have a bad person.

But GAO said in the Sept. 9 decision that LOC failed to justify why it wanted Microsoft and Amazon Web Services, and why a single-award was necessary.

You can read the entire decision, but let’s just say the Library of Congress lost on all complaints Oracle and Mythics filed with GAO about.

Then again, maybe SSA is the villain in this story too?

AT&T won a protest of a $524 million award to Verizon for SSA’s Next Generation Telephony Project (NGTP). Like with the Library of Congress case, the agency failed to document and mitigate a potential conflict of interest.

In both cases, GAO recommends the LoC and SSA to take corrective action by fixing the solicitations and re-evaluating the awards.

Hope you enjoyed this latest episode of As the Acquisition World Turns, a never-ending roller coaster of story lines and people.