Waiting for Alliant

After much delay, GSA vows to roll out its governmentwide contract for technology purchases next year.

Alliant, the $65 billion contract to provide the government with private-sector information technology services, is coming, promises the General Services Administration. It didn't come yesterday or today, but messengers say it surely will be ready soon. In the meantime, agencies and companies wait.

Alliant was supposed to be in the final stretch of development by now. GSA came up with the idea in mid-2003, announcing the contract in January 2004. Now the agency projects that a final request for proposals will be ready by October, with awards made by summer 2007. Probably just in time to miss the annual end-of-fiscal-year buying frenzy, predicts John Okay, a former GSA senior official, now a partner at Vienna, Va.-based Topside Consulting.

But the wait is necessary, says John Johnson, GSA's executive in charge of overseeing the contract. All the delays prior to his watch, which began in September 2005, added up to a critical mass of postponement, requiring a rethink of the entire procurement, Johnson contends. "Because it had been under way for so long, it required a second look," he says. It took about two months for the new Alliant team to prepare a revised approach and just as long to get intergovernmental approval to launch it, according to a GSA timeline.

On Feb. 21, GSA went public with its new strategy, though by the end of the day it became apparent that details remain to be worked out.

That morning, GSA posted a 20-minute online video featuring Johnson and Alliant Project Manager Jim Ghiloni. In it, Ghiloni said Alliant will be modified to feature a mechanism to certify and decertify Alliant vendors. The contract's statement of work will change to align with the federal enterprise architecture, an Office of Management and Budget effort to classify and control government IT expenditures. The number of functional areas in the contract's $15 billion small business set-aside might increase from two to four, potentially increasing the number of vendors awarded a slot on the contract.

"That information was less detailed, less specific than everybody in industry was hoping for," says Okay. The video "raised about as many questions as it answered."

For example, what does GSA mean by aligning the statement of work with the federal enterprise architecture? In the video, Ghiloni explained that a typical statement of work resembles a grocery list, with specific products, when it should resemble a directory of food categories. The enterprise architecture approach posits that agencies will always go grocery shopping, but that brands and tastes could change over time. Rather than list all the cereals that agencies could buy, Alliant should allow agencies to pick the best cereal possible at the moment of buying breakfast. This is especially important since over the probable life of the contract-five years with a five-year option to extend-the services likely will change.

But the federal enterprise architecture isn't a monolith; it consists of five documents called reference models and an additional three documents called profiles. Ghiloni says further details on how the statement of work will align with that strategic plan will be revealed in next draft RFP, due for release in June.

Certification and recertification is a matter of particular interest, too. GSA will periodically review vendors' performance and ability to meet the contract's requirements. Low- and poor-performing vendors will be given the boot. Small companies no longer certified as small also will be eased from their Alliant spots. Ghiloni says that "off-ramping" a company won't necessarily trigger a competition for replacement. That will depend on cost-benefit analyses.

But will new competitions simply replace lost vendors to keep the number of contractors stable, or could new slots open up? "That is one of the issues we're examining," Ghiloni says.

Johnson stresses that a goal of the online video is to initiate dialogue and receive feedback. "We are doing our best to move it forward as quickly as possible," he says. In the meantime, however, the market isn't standing still.

Interested companies' bid and proposal costs are mounting, to the point that some might be reconsidering whether Alliant is worth the expense, Okay says. Other federal agencies have come out with their own IT contracts, notably the Homeland Security Department and the Defense Information Systems Agency. The longer GSA waits to complete Alliant, the more incentive agencies have to shop elsewhere.

"Is GSA at a competitive disadvantage because it took so long? Yes," says Phil Kiviat, a government information technology market consultant. At the same time, agony over the delays is misplaced, he insists: "What has happened has happened, and we're looking forward."

Alliant is the replacement for two existing GSA contracts-Applications 'n Support for Widely Diverse EndUser Requirements, known as ANSWER, which expires in December 2008, and Millennia, which ends in April 2009.

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