GSA working on changes to FAR, new legislation to help agencies buy cloud

The General Services Administration says it understands the frustrations it’s heard from contracting professionals about how to buy cloud services for their agencies.

Now, it’s working on a series of new changes to the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), as well as a potential legislative proposal, that could help agencies buy cloud computing services as a “utility.”

“We would like Congress to take up ‘what is cloud?’ Cloud is not IT. It’s not traditional IT,” said Richard Blake, senior technologist for the Integrated Technology Service at GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service. “Cloud is a service that happens to deliver IT, so it’s IT as a service. We need the law to recognize that. In recognizing that then we hopefully will be able to get some relief from the law that prohibits us from treating this kind of IT differently than any other form of IT.”

Blake said such a proposal is taking shape within GSA now. The hope is that the Office of Management and Budget would champion GSA’s legislative proposal.

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“We’re hoping that we scream loud enough and do things like this to build enough traction where they look at ours favorably and attach it to something,” Blake said. “Logically, it should be the [National Defense Authorization Act] NDAA. That’s what we’re thinking.”

Blake didn’t give a specific timeline for the legislative proposal.

“That may take a little bit longer than this budget cycle, but we’ll get there,” he said during a Nov. 16 panel discussion at the 1105 Media IT Acqusition Summit in Washington.

GSA is also contemplating changes to the FAR.

“We took a look and we’re taking a look at whether or not some limitations in the FAR are barriers to cloud,” Blake said. “We discovered, yes, there are.”

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One deviation would focus on how agencies treat “time and materials” contracts.

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“We’re hoping to add some sort of deviation or language to the FAR that specifically, and with a great deal of specificity, describes to the contracting/acquisition community, what is cloud, how do you buy cloud and what’s allowed, assuming we get this legislation through.

One in particular would include a new contracting type to include cloud, Blake said. Many contracting officers now use a “time and materials” purchase model to buy cloud services.

“How do you apply the time and materials purchase model to the cloud? We have contracting officers who are doing that today and are receiving no push back on that event,” Blake said. “We need to fly cover. It’s time to define it. It is time to say cloud is here, cloud is here to stay. It’s time to say that consumable IT, that IT as a service, is here to stay. That is the model for IT in the future, at least the foreseeable future, and we need to put all the plugs and the levers in place to make that happen.”

GSA hopes that with these legislative and regulatory alternatives, the culture surrounding cloud acquisition in government will begin to evolve as well. The agency acknowledged that the traditional acquisition process, which can often take a year or two to finish, doesn’t work well for departments who want to buy cloud services, Blake said.

“When asked to inform [a contracting specialist] — who’s making a substantial obligation on behalf of the United States government, and they take those warrants very seriously as they should — to jump into a pool in which they have never been without having something to hang on as a life preserver, that being regulation or policy or law, is unfair,” he said. “For the last several years, that’s what we’ve been asking them to do.”

Jay Huie, an innovation specialist with GSA’s 18F, said he sees some of the cultural challenges that come with cloud acquisition as well.

“I … hazard a guess that most acquisition experts know how to buy a pencil, because they use them,” he said. “They probably know what a server in a computer is, because they have some analog like that at home or on their desk. But they’ve never seen the cloud.”

A team within GSA is also developing a “cloud playbook,” that would address cloud computing broadly and not just the agency’s products, Blake said.

GSA should publish the playbook sometime in January. First, the agency will present the guidance to three groups: its own internal cloud community, the Cloud Community Acquisition Forum and the Cloud Community of Interest.

“It’s going to address the future,” Blake said. “It will have templates, it will have guidance, definitional terms. We’re trying to solve this at GSA.”