US Agency Takes ‘Private’ Approach to Streamlining IT Procurement

Information technology vendors seeking business from the federal government are well advised to keep an eye on the requirements of big agencies such as the Department of Justice or the Department of Homeland Security. Within big departments, there are big components — such as the Food and Drug Administration or the Bureau of the Census.

Most of the IT reforms launched by the Obama administration since late 2010 are being implemented by the big agencies, whose top IT officials are members of the Chief Information Officers Council, which is operated out of the White House.

However, one of the most recently created government entities, with one of the smallest staffs in federal service, has just launched a program that should simplify the IT procurement process — a goal that many of the largest agencies are struggling to achieve.

The Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) has initiated what is essentially an open-ended program to develop a roster of IT vendors with a wide range of capabilities that the agency can call upon to provide assistance on an “as needed” basis. MCC is using a standard Blanket Purchase Agreement (BPA) mechanism to develop the roster.

While other agencies have been encouraged to use BPAs, most procurements that employ the mechanism are somewhat limited in scope in terms of the IT operations covered by the contract. Also, agencies issuing the BPAs use a relatively short cutoff date or deadline for vendors to qualify for the contract, while MCC’s deadline extends through March 2017. Vendors can become approved MCC contractors between now and the deadline.

Agency Seeks Multiple Vendors

“The intent is to establish multiple BPAs between qualified vendors and MCC, allowing MCC to contract simply and quickly with vendors to provide supplies and services within scope through the use of call orders,” the agency said in its bid request. Potential vendors do not need an existing General Services Administration (GSA) validation to apply to MCC.

“We’re trying to emulate the private sector approach and streamline the process,” John Peters, contracting officer at MCC, told the E-Commerce Times.

“Typically a federal agency will issue a request for proposals, wait for the vendors to respond, collect all the responses, and circulate them to their program and procurement people — then wait again for internal reviews, then select some potential vendors, conduct negotiations, and finally make an award,” he explained.

“We want to get a number of vendors qualified to provide everything from email support to telecoms, mobile devices, business management systems — you name it — so we can call upon them to respond quickly and shorten the normal time-consuming procurement process,” he said.

MCC employs only 300 full-time staffers and does not have the IT and procurement personnel to match a big agency such as the Justice Department. Created in 2004 with bipartisan Congressional support, the federally sponsored MCC utilizes a nontraditional method for providing financial assistance to developing countries.

Recipients must meet 17 essential requirements to receive funds, including the ability to manage projects and distribute assistance utilizing largely in-country capabilities. Large projects have been undertaken in Ghana, Morocco and Honduras.

IT Budget Goals

Although original funding levels were far in excess of US$1 billion per year, the agency operated on a tighter budget of $898 million in both 2011 and 2012, with the Obama administration requesting the same amount for 2013. Almost 85 percent of MCC’s budget goes for “compacts” and other assistance funds with recipient countries.

For 2013, the agency has proposed an administrative budget of $105 million, of which $8.3 million will be spent on IT for the its integrated data analysis system, enterprise content management program, architecture and program support, telecoms, privacy and security. The agency also has a small budget for contract professional services, including IT.

MCC’s charter allows the agency to dispense with some traditional federal acquisition requirements, and as a small agency, it can utilize simplified procurement procedures.

“But even with the simplified process, there are federal guidelines we have to meet,” Peters said.

“We are trying to make sure we observe those requirements while at the same time maximizing the allowable flexibility under the guidelines,” he explained.

“We’re a small agency, and if my director pops into my office with a project that requires some IT, we need to be able to respond quickly, so this approach facilitates that,” Peters said.

The formal request is listed as “Information Technology Vendors Blanket Purchase Agreements, MCC-12-RFP-0004.”

The Federal Buzz

Legislative Data Crunch: Bulk data providers could see some commercial opportunities with the release of federal legislation data now controlled by the Library of Congress through the THOMAS legislative reference service.

The Sunlight Foundation, an open government advocacy group, has asked Congress to order the release the THOMAS information in a bulk database, in addition to the electronic format that is available on the Internet. About 30 other organizations joined the Sunlight Foundation in the April 10 request.

The current format is “brittle,” Sunlight said, and frustrates access.

“Right now, the THOMAS format is flawed and has to be ‘scraped’ by providers from hundreds of thousands of Web pages in order to be captured and made useful in other formats. This is time-consuming and sometimes results in errors, and does not allow for the posting of updates,” Daniel Schuman, the foundation’s policy counsel, told CRM Buyer.

Bulk access would make the entire legislative database available for download at once.

Currently, a few public interest providers such as GovTrack and OpenCongress repackage THOMAS data, but only after going through a tedious conversion process.

Free services and commercial search organizations could provide a number of “value added” features to the THOMAS information if the database were available in bulk, Schuman noted.

Other federal agencies, such as the Government Printing Office (GPO), already provide bulk format information for the Federal Register and other data repositories, he pointed out.

“We estimate that for every person that goes directly to the THOMAS website, at least two people visit a third-party website. But even these sites must rely on information generated and maintained by Congress, which is only available through the difficult-to-use THOMAS website,” said Schuman.

Cybersecurity: Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., reported broad support of their cybersecurity protection bill, HR 3523. The bipartisan proposal helps the private sector defend itself from advanced cyberthreats without imposing any new federal regulations or unfunded mandates, and contains protections for privacy and civil liberties, they said.

More than 100 members had lined up to support the bill as of March 30. Private sector companies such as Facebook and Microsoft also support the legislation. The bill has not yet been considered by the full House.

John K. Higgins is a career business writer, with broad experience for a major publisher in a wide range of topics including energy, finance, environment and government policy. In his current freelance role, he reports mainly on government information technology issues for ECT News Network.

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