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OMB: GSA Tech Solutions Are “Best in Class,” Driving Smarter Government Buying

(Editorial note: This blog is written by Kay Ely, Acting Assistant Commissioner, Office of Information Technology Category)

For more than six decades, GSA has led the way in developing government-wide acquisition solutions, leveraging the power of government’s economies of scale and driving efficiencies across federal, state, local, and tribal governments.

We’re extremely proud that our Governmentwide Strategic Solution (GSS) Laptop/Desktop, along with Hardware and Software for IT Schedule 70, have been designated by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as “Best-in-Class” (BIC) – part of the first group that OMB recognized in the IT Category.

BIC designations signal to the acquisition community that these solutions meet rigorous category management performance criteria and confirm that we offer the necessary solutions and processes to meet government’s current and future IT requirements. Great news…but we’re only getting started. What’s next?

Buying Smarter

These newly BIC-designated IT contracts represent preferred government-wide purchasing solutions and provide a unique opportunity to leverage the government’s buying power. The BIC designation allows acquisition experts to take advantage of pre-vetted, government-wide contract solutions and supports a government-wide migration to solutions that are mature and market-proven. They also help optimize spend within the government-wide category management framework and increase the transactional data available for agency level and government-wide analysis of buying behavior.

BIC designations are just the latest of several initiatives around customer-centric tools, templates, and best practices that government-wide category management is using to enable government IT to:

  • Improve requirements development, procurement and management
  • Partner strategically with industry
  • Reduce contract duplication
  • Foster cross-agency collaboration

Next Steps

But we’re not resting. We will continue to aim high and strive for higher quality and efficiency in order to provide value to government agencies. We will constantly review and improve our IT acquisition vehicles to maximize value for agencies’ mission requirements. And, we plan to offer other IT solutions for BIC designation review.

We believe a BIC designation is not the end state, but rather an important milestone on a journey to help agencies improve their buying strategies.

Another way we’re making it easier for government to buy smarter: we’ve updated the Acquisition Gateway and GSA.gov pages below to display the BIC designations

See which contracts are raising the bar:

Please follow us on Twitter @GSA_ITC and LinkedIn to join our ongoing conversations about government IT.

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Hybrid Cloud: A Key to Phasing in New Technologies

Like any newer technology, cloud computing has faced adoption challenges. IT managers understand the huge potential efficiency improvements and savings that cloud computing can bring to their agencies, but also have questions about security, compatibility, and funding. With these concerns and without a clear path to cloud computing, many agencies continue to maintain on-premises solutions. However, the costs of legacy systems are expensive, and this is a particularly important issue in a budget-constrained environment.

So what can IT managers do?

Many IT managers are turning to a hybrid cloud solution. Hybrid allows an agency to phase in new technologies without making wholesale adoptions agency-wide. For example, an agency could identify all public-facing websites and move them to a public cloud in order to eliminate costly, on-premises servers and maintenance costs.

With the hybrid cloud, that same agency can also continue to operate sensitive systems on-premises to meet proper security requirements, while reducing costs in other areas. As the agency grows more comfortable with cloud solutions, they can transition other services, and employ private or community clouds depending on their requirements.

Agencies can also benefit from pay-for-use services that expand and contract according to usage and need. Reducing the need for large investments in less flexible and more costly infrastructure. It also gives government agencies a flexible and efficient alternative to replace costly, outdated legacy systems.

More agencies are moving to the cloud, and hybrid is a nice transition that allows for the most flexibility, enabling fully customizable and highly efficient solutions. And agencies can use the best available solutions provided by the best available suppliers.

Moving to the Cloud—Hand in Hand

Although embracing hybrid cloud solutions is a little different from traditional IT procurements, agencies don’t have to transition alone—we are here to help. We have experts in cloud technologies with useful resources including requirements and needs analysis, scope reviews, and can advise you on how to structure the procurement and which “pre-competed” contract best fits your needs.

If you are considering moving to cloud, visit www.gsa.gov/cloud or the Acquisition Gateway for industry leading white papers, checklists, and templates that will make your implementation successful. You can also reach out directly to our cloud experts who are on hand to support agencies through transitions at cesdd@gsa.gov.

Please follow us on Twitter @GSA_ITC and LinkedIn to join our ongoing conversations about government IT.

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Defense Health Agency Awards Health IT SIN’s First Major Contract

The first major award using the new Health IT Services Special Item Number (SIN) 132-56 on IT Schedule 70 has been made by the Defense Health Agency (DHA). A $15.6 million task order was awarded for the U.S Army Solution Delivery Division for an Enterprise Blood Management System (EBMS). This award will help effectively manage and track blood donor registration, screening, blood products, and associated record keeping for military and civilian blood donors.

In a previous blog, I explained that Health IT Services is experiencing an annual growth rate of 7.4 percent, which makes the health IT market one of the faster-growing technology sectors in both government and private sector (projected to reach $31.3 billion in 2017).

As the market continues to grow in size and complexity, agencies look to Schedule 70 for help. Still in its first year, the Health IT Services SIN is expanding its capabilities to ensure it incorporates agency requirements and industry capabilities. The SIN now has over 170 industry partners, providing access to a comprehensive array of health IT services including electronic health records, health analytics, and a wide range of other innovative health IT solutions.

Training Webinar

On June 13, 2017, the Health IT SIN team will hold a training webinar for government agencies for ordering from the SIN. The discussion will cover the Health IT SIN’s purpose, its benefits to government customers, and ways to use the SIN to meet customers’ health IT requirements.

Visit our Schedules news and training page for registration instructions and other information about the webinar.

Advantages

On July 8, 2016, GSA launched the Health IT Services SIN 132-56, available to federal, state, local, and tribal governments. Created with agencies and industry, the resulting solution provides centralized, direct access to a distinct set of health IT services.

The new Health IT SIN gives industry partners a way to differentiate their solutions from other IT-related services under the IT Schedule 70 Program, allowing them to stand out to agencies. This lets agencies more easily see what health IT services are available and how to get them.

Using Schedule 70 for our Health IT solution allows GSA to keep up with the evolving marketplace by continuously adding new and innovative companies and services. This includes access to a strong and diverse small business landscape.

Additionally, agencies continue to receive the benefits that Schedule 70 offers: ease of access through GSA systems for market research and acquisition planning, and a simplified procurement process that reduces costs.

Increased Use

Agencies are increasingly using the Health IT SIN for Requests For Information (RFIs) or Requests For Quotations (RFQs) for market research purposes: to help clarify and refine their requirements, to gauge vendor interest, and to procure health IT services.

At this time, 27 RFQs/RFIs have been posted under the Health IT SIN.

Other agencies are also actively using the Health IT SIN, besides the Department of Defense:

Department of Health and Human Services:

  • Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
  • Environmental Health Tracking Branch
  • National Center for Environmental Health
  • U.S. Food & Drug Administration

Department of Justice:

  • Bureau of Prisons

Department of State:

  • Bureau of Medical Services

Department of Veteran Affairs:

  • National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • VA Medical Centers
  • Veterans Benefits Administration
  • Veterans Health Administration

Interested?

Are you interested in joining the ranks of those currently using the Health IT SIN? Get started by reaching out to us at healthit-sin@gsa.gov.

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My Q & A with the IT Industry – What’s Working and What Could be Improved in Federal Acquisition

(Byline: Mary Davie, Government-wide IT Category Manager)

I recently met with more than 50 representatives from the top IT services companies and talked about the good and the bad in federal acquisition. Some of the discussion was surprising … some not so much. The key takeaways include some changes that are fairly simple for government to implement, yet have big impacts.

1. Government acquisition and program personnel need to be more accessible and increase communications regarding requirements and procurement timelines. Industry told me government program/acquisition personnel rarely respond to requests to discuss programs, requirements, and agency priorities in order to develop proposals and solutions or offer alternatives.

GSA’s Information Technology Category has made extensive use of RFIs, draft RFPs, industry days, one-on-one meetings (over 100 individual meetings on Alliant 2 and EIS) and collaborative platforms such as interact.gsa.gov for collaboration and input. I’ve heard many times from government reps that they don’t have time or don’t know how to handle sharing with multiple companies since sharing has to be handled equitably.

I’m here to tell you we have to find time to meet with industry. There are many ways to share information equitably. GSA spends an extensive amount of time communicating and collaborating to develop all of our governmentwide contracts to ensure we get as much input and feedback as possible. The governmentwide IT category and sub-category teams (Mobile, Software, and Laptop/Desktop) are also spending lots of time conducting industry days, participating in technology demonstrations, and meeting individually with companies. And the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) encourages federal program and acquisition representatives to interact with industry as much as possible – they’ve issued three Mythbusting memos on the subject.

So my advice is to establish relationships and regular forums for communication with your industry partners and potential partners. The Alliant PMR and shared interest groups that have formed under the contract were called out as a best practice, and, unfortunately, are rare practice for government contracts.

Agencies should seize the opportunity inherent in active program management to help make the contract successful. GSA’s Alliant program and contracting staff are in constant communication with the industry – they share contract data, potential agency opportunities on the contract, outreach and training to agency customers, account management and agency buying trends; meet many client-facing GSA representatives; and provide a place for industry to resolve issues and challenges in a trusted environment.

Without spending time upfront to talk about what we need with industry, we aren’t going to get good competition or the innovative solutions we are looking for. I think open communications often comes from a feeling of safety and having top cover, and our government leaders need to provide that encouragement to our workforce.

2. e-Tools and Repository of Solicitations. Many agencies do an excellent job of using one system to post opportunities and retain statements of work and proposals in an historical repository. This is a great practice that reduces cost and provides clarity to industry about past requirements and incumbent contractors – things that are important to them as part of their bid/no-bid decision process. One participant said this about the Navy’s SeaPort-e system:

“You can see a changing dynamic in a scope of work and what solutions a customer is looking for. That transparency is robust enough to do a real analysis to understand that customer even better.”

That’s what we strive to do for the governmentwide category management efforts: share data and information, conduct more robust market research, and provide a platform like the Acquisition Gateway so agencies and industry have one place to go to find information pertinent to all agencies and across categories.

3. Statements of Work vs. Statements of Objectives. Government, in general, is still prescribing the HOW we want work to get done and what kind of people we want on the job (i.e., prescribing labor categories), rather than describing what we need and what the outcome should be.

Industry reported that they still see voluminous, prescriptive RFPs instead of simpler statements of objectives. When government uses the prescriptive RFP, it makes it harder for industry to offer innovative solutions – yet the government regularly says that’s what it wants. We need to train our folks to write statements of objectives and then how to manage contracts for outcomes and performance. It’s harder to do, but it’s where we need to be.

The industry unanimously agreed that GSA’s FEDSIM does a great job of this. FEDSIM conducts IT and professional services procurements on behalf of other agencies using a true Integrated Project Team approach. They bring in program, technical, acquisition, and legal staff to work with customer agency staff on requirements development and drafting the solicitation. In addition, FEDSIM uses standard acquisition processes and templates, and works very closely with industry to provide opportunity pipeline information and conduct market research during presolicitation (Check out their new website and you’ll see what I mean.). They write in clear performance-based terms and employ trained project managers and CORs to manage the projects after award.

Industry also pointed out that the way government structures smaller requirements often requires the same level of effort from industry to bid. So the tendency is for industry not to bid those requirements and instead spend their time bidding larger opportunities. This results in reduced competition and fewer innovative solutions for government on the smaller requirements.

4. STOP issuing Requests for Information asking for corporate capabilities! If an agency is going to use an existing contract, there is no need for capabilities RFIs. Agencies should be focused instead on asking for a few key pieces of information regarding the requirements themselves. Industry spends lots of time and money responding to general RFIs and then rarely ever get any information or response back from the government. This should be part of the market research and pre-solicitation process.

Another bad, costly, and confusing practice is for government to issue the same RFI against multiple contracts. Industry feels compelled to respond to all of them because of the uncertainty of where the requirement might end up. Unfortunately, this is a very costly and time-consuming practice.

With the Acquisition Gateway, agencies now have a single place they can find government-wide and agency-specific contracts for specific categories of spend. This should really help eliminate those general RFIs.

Using a tool like Interact provides a great way to share information online and let government and industry respond and ask questions – everyone has equal access. But government should still make time for those in-person discussions.

5. Things that drive up cost – Schedule slips and procurement delays. Industry budgets a certain amount of money each year for bid and proposal costs. As government delays the process, it extends the time industry must spend to pursue the work. It also comes with opportunity costs for not being able to bid on other work. This isn’t helpful if we want highly qualified partners who can bring us innovative solutions.

Requiring industry to provide references and agencies to fill out questionnaires on past performance. Industry questioned the value of government requiring past performance information as part of the evaluation process in the manner it typically uses. We all agree that both experience and past performance are critical factors. For the governmentwide contracts, the value is to offer qualified companies with strong program management and technical capabilities, so experience and past performance are both critical parts of the qualification process.

Systems like Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System (CPARS) and Past Performance Information Retrieval System (PPIRS) can be used for at least part of what the government needs in the evaluation process, but another alternative offered was reciprocity across government in sharing contract Quality Assurance Surveillance Plans.

Industry estimated that the process used by the OASIS and Alliant 2 teams (a combination of FPDS-NG reports, CPARS/PPIRS reports, and past performance surveys only if a CPARS/PPIRS report was not available) saved between 40-70% in offeror bid and proposal costs.

Guessing at the cost of the requirement. Industry shared that a best practice is to publish the range of estimated costs the government thinks (and is willing to spend) to do the job directly in the solicitation. Part of the rationale for this is that the government isn’t writing clear requirements and isn’t sharing enough information for industry to be able to “guess” what the government is asking. Another reason this makes sense is that the amount that the government is spending is already public. Rather than falling into the “Price to Win” trap, leveling the playing field allows the government to select what is truly the best value .

GSA’s FEDSIM organization has used this practice successfully for years (I did it when I worked at FEDSIM 20 years ago). When the range is provided, industry can determine the kind of solution they can bid for what the government can spend.

6. Protests. As you might imagine, this topic brought lots of energetic discussion. Wrapped up in the topic are industry-government communications, risk, quality, and company strategy.

Industry suggested that government should improve relationships and communication. This includes sharing more information and being accessible in the pre-solicitation phase, writing clearer requirements, and allowing for in-person debriefs. As a result of these activities protests may decrease.

Our government representatives didn’t quite buy it. They pointed to cases in which those things were taking place and yet we still received protests. There was clear agreement from both government and industry that protests are often used as a strategy by an incumbent company to buy more time and income.

The group then discussed using something like a protest bond or fee that a company would have to pay if they lost a protest, hoping to encourage only protests that were charging substantive deficiencies or issues.

I don’t think much of what came up in our discussion was a surprise to anyone; however, I truly appreciated industry’s candor and how they gave us an opportunity to share and learn from this feedback. Both government and industry have responsibilities in federal acquisition,both parties can make improvements. Small changes can have big impact.