How users drove GSA’s design of new acquisition platform

In a matter of days, the federal contracting community will learn whether the General Services Administration avoided and learned from the mistakes it made in November 2019, or if history will repeat itself.

GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service flipped the switch on May 24 for the new SAM.gov portal, bringing together 1.5 million users across six acquisition websites under one umbrella and integrating the data to reduce the burden on agency and industry customers alike.

The new SAM.gov removes the “beta” from the web address, retires the previous version of the site and aims to create a common look and feel across acquisition systems under the Integrated Acquisition Environment (IAE).

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

“One of the visions we’ve had now for many years in integrating all of these capabilities together is to create for you and contracting officials a single workspace,” said Judith Zawatsky, the assistant commissioner of the Office of Systems Management in FAS, during the recent Coalition for Government Procurement spring conference. “If you already have a log-in and an account, you will not need to do anything but come in and authenticate yourself. You will not need to create a new account and you will not have any issues. When you do authenticate yourself, you are going to find a workspace where you can do all the things for which you have a role for your entity.”

Zawatsky said the user’s workspace will include common searches the user performs and the reports they typically run.

“We’ve changed the design and layout to make it more readable. The design in compliance with the 21st Century IDEA Act. The design is already very much ahead of the USDS web standards and brings in a lot of functionality. We are very excited about the look and feel, and the ability to see more data that you are looking for and understand what you are looking at so you have to go through less pages,” she said. “We’ve also added a whole new set of data analytics into the system so we actually will be able to get a better understanding of how people are interfacing not only with the site, but with each page, and that, along with feedback, continue to drive changes and improvements.”

The constant feedback — there is a link on every page of SAM.gov to submit comments — will be the tall tale sign of success.

If you remember, the first time GSA launched this site, then called beta.sam.gov in November 2019 when it shut down FedBizOpps.gov, industry was none too happy with the results.

Some of the common complaints back then focused on search parameters, reduced functionality and a lack of data standards. The Professional Services Council outlined their complaints in a 22-page letter sent two months after the launch.

Feedback has been critical for the new design

Zawatsky said in an interview with Federal News Network that GSA received more than 35,000 pieces of feedback already from customers, and the landing pages have gone through 50 different iterations to improve design and functionality through user experience and feedback mechanisms.

“We really, really, really listened. It’s taken us more than a small amount of time to move from that first rollout of beta.sam.gov and then the FBO integration, and we’ve taken a lot of firepower through our business and product owners to really review all of the input that we got, suss it out, organize it and do feedback sessions,” she said. “We do recognize that we have users who are very large businesses that have 100 entities under them and they are trying to manage all of that, and we have people who are just trying to apply for an American Rescue Plan Act grant and just are trying to get through the process. We are trying to accommodate all of those people across an intense amount of data.”

GSA isn’t blind to the fact that agency and industry customers will have to adjust to the new site and there will be some challenges.

Zawatsky said she believes GSA opened up its testing and focus groups to as many agency and industry customers as possible. GSA also believes the workspace concept will give users more control over the specific data they are looking for.

“We really encourage people to log-in so they can have their profile and workspace. They can follow opportunities. They can look at their searches and create their own experience. That is our iterative goal. We bring all this data together. We make it 21st Century IDEA Act compliant. We make it secure. We keep the data clean and protected, and people create their own experiences,” she said.

To log-in to the systems, users will have to have a login.gov account.

Goodbye DUNS, hello UEI

Another big change GSA is getting industry and agencies ready for is the move away from the DUNS number and to the Unique Entity Identifier (UEI), which will be the standards starting in April 2022.

Every vendor organization will receive a UEI at the launch of the new portal.

Amber Hart, co-founder of the Pulse of GovCon, a market intelligence firm, said GSA has an opportunity with the new SAM.gov to fix some of the frustrating aspects of beta.sam.gov.

“A majority of industry spends thousands of dollars so that a commercial firm can string together GSA’s own data to figure out the historical context. GSA could remedy this situation and did make a slight attempt at doing this with ‘history’ and ‘related notice’ data entry points on the new SAM.gov but that feature seems to be missing the point as it still is a manual entry process,” Harts said in an email to Federal News Network. “This is a massive undertaking that I don’t think anyone could ever get fully right, and I know GSA had their own reasons for combining all of these systems – like making internal processes easier, more secure, etc. – but to industry, it just seems like the contract opportunity functionality of SAM.gov was an afterthought based on the outcome.”

Hart and others will have plenty of opportunity to comment and offer feedback over the coming weeks.

FAS Commissioner Sonny Hashmi said at the Coalition’s event that the site is more responsive and more scalable.

“We decoupled the front end from the back end. For you, that means that we are able to roll out more capabilities more quickly and in a more decentralized way,” he said. “We know SAM isn’t always easy to use, and we know you all have identified some pain points. One thing I can commit to you is that we will listen.”

And if there are problems, industry will not be shy about speaking up.

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