OPM retreats on E-Learning contract
- By Jason Miller
- Aug 13, 2004
Vendors' allegations of bias force a new look at the request for proposals
OPM's Norm Enger says 40 agencies have migrated to the GoLearn.gov portal, and another 18 will finish by Sept. 30.
The Office of Personnel Management last week wrote another chapter in its spotty procurement history, postponing a solicitation for the E-Learning project. Vendors had complained about the appearance of bias toward the incumbent contractors.
Several vendors alleged that OPM designed the solicitation with specific requirements for technology used by the incumbents'GeoLearning Inc. of West Des Moines, Iowa, and Plateau Systems Ltd. of Arlington, Va. And, until earlier this month, OPM had specifically required all learning content management systems to integrate with Plateau's system.
E-Learning, one of the 25 Quicksilver e-government projects, will set up a central portal, GoLearn.gov, for online training.
Vendors complained that language in the request for proposals closely mirrored text at GeoLearning's Web site. They suggested OPM had copied the text in its learning management system requirements section from GeoLearning. But an OPM official provided documents that refuted the claim.
OPM procurement executive Ron Flom said wording in the E-Learning solicitation was identical to a Transportation Department statement of work for a similar project in May 2002.
Will Hipwell, GeoLearning's director of marketing, said his company probably had taken its language from the contract.
Nevertheless, the perception of impropriety was enough for OPM director Kay Coles James to pull the solicitation back and tell the procurement office to clean it up, said Scott Hatch, OPM's communications director.
'The director was briefed and, after hearing some of the questions raised, her overriding concern was that there should be no perception of anything going on with the procurement,' Hatch said. 'She said 'Let's stop where we are, let's make it right and let's reissue it,' and that is what we are going to do.'
Industry officials, all of whom requested anonymity, expressed satisfaction with OPM's announcement. 'I'm pleased that it has been cancelled, and I will be more pleased when the new one comes out and is done properly,' one industry official said. 'OPM cannot afford another Monster.com fiasco.'
E-Learning is the second high-profile OPM e-government project that has come under fire from vendors and Congress.
OPM was forced to reissue the solicitation for the Recruitment One-Stop project after Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, threatened to withhold funding if OPM didn't recompete the contract.
OPM last year gave Monster Government Solutions of Maynard, Mass., a 10-year, $62 million contract, but the Government Accountability Office upheld a losing bidder's protest.
OPM reissued the Recruitment One-Stop RFP earlier this month.
Flom said the agency will re-release the E-Learning RFP by the end of August. Proposals will be due by late October.
The E-Learning procurement was problematic even before OPM became aware of the vendors' allegations, however.
The original RFP, due in April 2003, was delayed longer than a year as it ballooned from about 200 pages to nearly 400. When OPM finally released it in May, contractors had more than 1,000 questions, Flom said.
The number of questions bothered procurement experts, vendors and lawmakers.
'Congress is keeping a close eye on this project as it moves forward,' said a senior congressional staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 'On the one hand, you have to expect some bad blood and griping from contractors; this is a project where we're moving from many to few, and there are going to be losers. On the other hand, there's no need to fuel the fire by [what appears as] sloppily borrowing phrases from a vendor's site when you're writing the solicitation.
'Frankly, that's what this looks like: laziness and sloppiness. But it does smell bad and it does raise flags. That's why we'll keep an eye on it,' the staff member added.
Vendors pointed to other examples of apparent bias toward the incumbents.
One vendor said the solicitation calls for 'scalable versions of ColdFusion MX Server, capable of running on [Java2 Enterprise Edition] platforms, and which have demonstrated scalability, fault tolerance and are fully distributable.' That, the vendor said, favored GeoLearning, which uses that technology for its learning management system.
ColdFusion MX Server is a proprietary system from Macromedia Inc. of San Francisco. Agencies are prohibited from calling for specific technologies and should rely on standards, according to Office of Management and Budget Circular A-119 and architecture experts.
Norm Enger, OPM's e-government project director, denied the vendors' accusations. When OPM technical workers developed the requirements, he said, many vendors' solutions used ColdFusion, which is why it was specifically named.
Vendors said most have since switched from ColdFusion to Microsoft .Net or J2EE over the past year. One vendor questioned why OPM was using requirements more than two years old. 'Did no one look?' the vendor asked. 'OPM did a lazy job of defining the requirements for the solicitation.'
Also, vendors said, OPM's requirement that all systems must comply with both .Net and J2EE after the third year of the contract is unfair. Some vendors use only J2EE, and having to add the other platform would be prohibitively expensive, they said.
'The requirements of the RFP reduce the ability to compete,' an industry official argued.
Officials of Plateau and GeoLearning said the RFP gives them no advantage except the generic edge of incumbency.
'We want competition, and that is why we are going through this process,' Enger said. 'We could have used the original contract indefinitely, but that wasn't what we wanted.'