GSA pulls a Fast one for FirstGov

GSA pulls a Fast one for FirstGov

Fast is 'very scalable, met all our requirements and was the best value in terms of technology,' GSA's Deborah Diaz says.

Norwegian search engine provider is part of the winning team for portal upgrade

If you've never heard of Fast Search and Transfer of Oslo, Norway, you're not alone. Despite its low name recognition, the company's search engine will power the next generation of the FirstGov portal.

The General Services Administration this month awarded a team led by AT&T Corp., of which Fast Search and Transfer is a member, a five-year, $10.5 million contract to provide a new search engine for FirstGov.

AT&T beat 10 other teams, which included heavyweights such as AltaVista Co. of Palo Alto, Calif., current search engine provider Inktomi Corp. of Foster City, Calif., and Yahoo Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif.

AT&T already provides FirstGov with Web hosting services through GRC International Inc. of Vienna, Va., which it bought in March 2000. The hosting contract expires in August, and GSA officials plan to open the job to new competition.

GSA's choice of the Fast Search and Transfer team surprised many competitors and industry watchers.

'Fast has been a sleeper,' said Chris Sherman, president of Searchwise, a search engine analysis company in Boulder, Colo. 'It has been coming on strong in the last year and expanding its overall Web index and trying to catch up to Google in terms of the number of pages indexed.'

Sherman said GSA's choice seems to be a good one, though many search engines are similar.

'All search engines are engineered differently, and some do a better job at one thing than another, but there is not much difference,' he said. 'The top-tier companies probably made very compelling offers. What surprises me the most is that AT&T chose Fast as opposed to a more popular search engine company.'

Sherman said Fast stands out compared to its competitors because it performs rigorous internal benchmarking and has shown a willingness to solve problems quickly.

'It speaks well about the company to have high standards internally,' he said. 'They have demonstrated over the past year that they can handle some of the more challenging things, and maybe the other search engines didn't show that to GSA.'
Neither Fast nor AT&T would comment on the award.

Search engine similarities

A company executive with an unsuccessful bidder who asked not to be named said it is unlikely that there were many technical distinctions between the search engines in the competition.

'Cost must have been a major factor because as far as I can see, they never evaluated any product,' the vendor said, adding that his team's bid was higher than AT&T's offer.

Fast, though, has a long list of customers, including Dell Computer Corp. and Lycos Inc. of Waltham, Mass.'both of which have invested in the Norwegian company.

Other unsuccessful bidders questioned GSA's evaluation of the proposals because it did not ask for technical demonstrations or oral presentations.

'There was no crisp, clear follow-through on what was expected to be a clear evaluation,' said another industry official who was a part of an unsuccessful team and asked not to be named. 'I have not seen something on this scale handled in such a loosey-goosey manner. So many things didn't make sense.'

GSA officials disputed claims that Fast is an unknown entity or that the evaluation was unfair.

'It is one of the big three when it comes to search engines,' said Deborah Diaz, GSA's deputy associate administrator in the Office of FirstGov. 'It is very scalable, met all our requirements and was the best value in terms of technology.'

David Drabkin, deputy associate administrator for GSA's Office of Acquisition Policy, said the evaluation criteria were clear. He said GSA did extensive market research before releasing its request for proposals and hired a consultant to prepare the agency for the bid evaluation process.

'It is not required and not necessarily appropriate to have oral presentations or technical demonstrations every time you buy something,' Drabkin said.

'We specified clearly what we wanted, and some did not meet the minimum requirements. Some did not have sufficient experience with the number of pages we needed to search, and others lacked enough relevant past performance. We didn't need technical demonstrations to understand these issues,' he said.

To avoid bias, the technical evaluation team and source selection committee first analyzed the proposals without knowing their price tags, he added.

Drabkin said AT&T's offer came out on top for both technical specifications and cost.

'No one was close to matching AT&T's proposal,' he said. 'There are some who are disappointed, but this was a completely open competition, and we selected what was the best value. Anyone who reviews the facts of the acquisition will see it wasn't even close.'

Diaz said AT&T will take over the system March 31, when the current search engine contract, held by Federal Search Foundation Inc. of Washington, expires.

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