GSA gives in to the reality of a program that would never fly

As Kenny Rogers crooned, you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em. The General Services Administration folded ’em — in cancelling a high profile but doomed program called Alliant 2 Small Business.

It was to be the governmentwide acquisition vehicle for small businesses doing professional IT services. But sometimes a thing just doesn’t go right from the outset.

GSA launched the solicitation in 2016. The agency made awards for the unrestricted Alliant GWAC in December 2017. Awards for the small business edition came soon after in February 2018. Protests came before the toner cartridge cooled off.

The Court of Federal Claims eventually sided with contractor Citizant, saying GSA had goofed up the evaluations. By March of last year, GSA rescinded the awards — all 81 of them — rather than going back and rescoring all of the submissions. Then in August 2019 GSA said it would start accepting revised bids. The program, with a ceiling of $15 billion, was still on Bloomberg Government’s list of top 20 opportunities, even after three tortured years.

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As late as this past May, vendors were waiting to hear what GSA would do. Then last Monday, GSA gathered up its cards and quit the game. It is sending agency buyers to other vehicles, such as the 8(a) STARS III, for which it has issued a final request for proposals. Agencies can also go to small businesses on GSA’s multiple awards schedule contracts, but only fixed price, commercial task orders are allowed there, not cost-plus.

No one can calculate the person-hours or dollars expended in this long-running effort. But it’s pretty much wasted. It reminds me of the time, as a wee lad, I was sitting on the floor with my cousin at the feet of my grandfather, who could be impatient. He was trying to load film into a camera known as the Polaroid Swinger, a hot gadget in the 1960s. In those days Polaroids required convoluted threading of multiple rolls of stuff. If not done precisely, forget it. Pop fiddled and fiddled. Suddenly he let loose with a loud expletive. My cousin and I fairly jumped. In frustration Pop yanked the whole tangle of film, paper and chemical pods into a billowing nest of trash.

GSA appears to have been more deliberative, if no less frustrated. But in its press release affirming the cancellation of A2SB, it sounded cryptic. Since launching the GWAC, it stated, “the federal government’s requirements have evolved and GSA recognizes the opportunity to strengthen, innovate, and better respond to changing technology needs and security threats.” That might be true, but any new GWAC would still require a lot of collaboration with industry to come up with a relevant solicitation. And once it received them, GSA would still have to do proper evaluations.

GSA says new GWAC solicitation will aim “to develop pools of qualified small businesses” from all of the socioeconomic categories. Does that mean separate GWACs for women-owned, HUBzone and Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned, for instance? Or will a new vehicle be more like the Multiple Award Schedules or the Navy’s SeaPort-NxG with more than 1,800 contractors and seemingly no one left off?

We don’t know yet. But the A2SB episode shows how little problems, including a purported dearth of communication with industry, can sink an ambitious program. GSA does know how to make successful governmentwide acquisition contracts. It has a decent record there. Sometimes though, like with a souffle that won’t rise, you’ve just got to dump it and start over.