This fall, GSA was forced to stop just short of turning the switch on Alliant, a $50 billion, 10-year contract that agencies were supposed to start using this year to buy an array of IT services. The agency has been waiting for rulings from the Government Accountability Office on more than a half-dozen protests filed by companies that did not receive an Alliant award. GAO was expected to issue rulings on those protests next month.
This summer, 66 companies submitted bids for Alliant, and on July 31, GSA awarded indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts to 29 of them. At the time, program manager Jim Ghiloni said, "We went out to the world in a full and open environment and have conducted the competition, and these are the selections we've made for award."
But a protest filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims on Sept. 26 by Serco Inc., a U.S. subsidiary of an IT company based in the United Kingdom that did not receive an Alliant award, has overtaken the GAO protests and now presents a bigger problem for GSA, procurement experts say. Serco claims GSA was "arbitrary and capricious" in awarding the Alliant contracts and did not properly evaluate vendors' past performance, references and technical capabilities, as required by law. Serco has asked the court to reopen the contract for bids.
Some companies that did not receive an Alliant award, including Centech, CGI Federal Inc. Nortel, Stanley Associates and others, have joined the protest, according to a source familiar with the situation. They initially had filed separate protests, and the court combined them, the source said. The case has been assigned to Judge Francis Allegra, and the first hearing is scheduled for Feb. 4.
CGI Federal and APPtis Inc. also filed protests with GAO but have withdrawn them, according to an agency spokesman. Other companies that filed protests with GAO -- Advanced Technology, Artel, Client Network Services, Nortel and Stanley Associates-- withdrew them because of "concurrent litigation," referring to the Serco protest.
A brief message posted on GSA's Alliant Web site states, "The Alliant team is responding to several protests, therefore a Notice to Proceed has not been issued at this time."
A GSA spokesman declined to comment more, citing the pending litigation.
Filing the protests in court signals the companies are serious about trying to overturn the Alliant awards and force GSA to reopen the contract for bids, said Steven Schooner, associate dean at The George Washington University Law School in Washington and a former associate administrator for procurement law and legislation at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Typically, companies only file protests with GAO. Filing a protest with the court is "between rare and extremely rare," with the court reviewing only a few dozen protests a year, compared with about 3,000 protests the GAO reviews each year, Schooner said.
"GAO is the forum of choice," Schooner said. "It's less expensive, faster and includes an automatic stay to stop the procurement."
Factors that might cause a company to file a protest in court could come from the advice of the company's law firm, which might view the GAO as less likely to side with the company, said Kevin Carroll, former head of the Army's Program Executive Office-Enterprise Information Systems. Also, the court requires plaintiffs to show that they have a good chance of winning, which means lawyers must develop a more detailed case. That, in turn, requires companies to pay their lawyers more to conduct research. Companies only do that when they feel they have a strong case.
At the time of the Alliant awards, Ghiloni said he hoped to have Alliant operational as soon as possible. But the delay now hurts GSA's efforts to quickly begin offering Alliant to agencies as an alternative to expiring IT service contracts. Alliant replaces the popular GSA contracts ANSWER and Millenia, which will continue until their expiration dates in the next eight to 12 months.
Ray Bjorklund, chief knowledge officer at the McLean, Va.-based market research firm Federal Sources, said the ANSWER and Millenia contracts were extremely popular with agencies, making winning an Alliant award crucial.
"The Alliant program was a must-win for many of these players," Bjorklund said at the time of the Alliant awards. "In the end, it will be one fewer contract, and that is cheaper because you don't have to sell using multiple vehicles." Bjorklund could not be reached for comment on the protests.