Warren Suss | Networx and the Future of GSA
I read with distress Neal Fox's recent GCN Op-Ed piece, 'GSA's Networx'Will it connect with users? Contracting in Perspective' [GCN, June 19, Page 22].
It's not just that Fox is kicking the General Services Administration when it is down. What makes the piece dangerous is that it trashes a program that really represents a wonderful, if imperfect, model for how GSA should address many of the government's most pressing challenges.
GSA's success depends on its ability to become the premier channel for providing information technology services to federal agencies. GSA needs to get government agencies great prices for IT goods and services. GSA needs to help agencies identify IT solutions that will get results, and then it needs to help agencies bring these solutions from promise to reality.
Large, complex, mission-focused federal IT programs offer the biggest potential payoff for the government and for the American public, but they also are fraught with political, technical, schedule and cost risks. GSA's greatest challenge is to earn the confidence and trust of the federal community so that GSA can play a greater role on these types of programs.
GSA did many things right on FTS 2001 and on the Networx program that replaces it. The agency actively engaged its user community, represented by the Interagency Management Council, in formulating program objectives, acquisition strategies, and critical technical and management details. GSA staff had extensive interaction with industry to solicit ideas and to refine requirements. They vetted their approach with political oversight committees. And GSA wrestled to ground many serious program risks and challenges. These include complex issues related to billing, reporting, data dictionaries and service delivery points. The result was a successful negotiation bridging the desires of the agencies and the capabilities of industry.
Just as important, by delivering results on FTS 2000 and FTS 2001, GSA allowed the agencies to reduce the size of the acquisition, technical and management staffs individual agencies required to buy, install and operate networks. The agencies have a big stake in the success of Networx because they have, in effect, achieved a merger and rationalization of functions through it.
GSA spent a lot of resources putting FTS 2000, FTS 2001 and Networx in place and helping to manage them. But those were outweighed by the tremendous economies of scale and relatively minimal administrative and technical burdens placed on the participating 135 agencies and 1,600 user subagencies.
Now I'm not arguing that the final structure of the Networx request for proposals is perfect, or that all of the delays in the evaluation process are justifiable.
But the customers, working with GSA, have spoken on this one. They've opted for a broad-ranging, CLIN-based, fixed-priced RFP, and GSA has attracted some extremely competent professionals who seem to be working very hard to get to the finish line. GSA has also made it clear that they plan to offer their customers a wide variety of contract options for mixing and matching IT and network/telecom services, including supply schedules and general ID/IQ vehicles like Alliant.
I think it's fair to praise GSA for delivering impressive results in the federal wide-area networking arena, measured in program growth (26 percent last year), dollars saved ($600 million in 2005), and expanded services (IP, Managed Security Services, voice over IP, Web hosting and custom designed managed networks). GSA has earned their user fees many times over. They should be praised for their professionalism, effectiveness, and efficiency on FTS 2000, FTS 2001 and, yes, on Networx so far.
GSA should now seek to replicate its success from the wide-area-network arena into other vital IT technologies, particularly in mission-critical application development and implementation. GSA needs to move beyond an era when agencies came to them because GSA could pull off some neat acquisition tricks like parking money or turning around an RFP in a few weeks. Their real value, and their future, rests on their ability to become a trusted partner on more high-impact, high-profile, high-dollar, high-risk programs like Networx.
Warren Suss is President of Suss Consulting Inc., a federal IT management consulting firm headquartered in Jenkintown, Pa.