Mega-contracts from GSA, DHS continue to spin on the protest hamster wheel

Two high-profile federal procurements continue to suffer delays because of bid protests.

The General Services Administration’s $50 billion Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS) telecommunications contract is back under a pre-award protest.

Windstream is the latest unhappy vendor, submitting a protest to the Government Accountability Office on April 17.

Meanwhile, the Homeland Security Department’s multiple-award contract for agile services known as FLASH is back under protest.

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GAO lists 12 complaints from unsuccessful bidders in two separate timeframes, mid-March and late April — after DHS made awards for the second time. DHS chose 11 vendors — as opposed to 13 last time around — to have a spot on the $1.5 billion Flexible Agile Support for the Homeland (FLASH) deal.

The fact that both of these high-profile, large dollar contract vehicles continue to face challenges before GAO is not surprising. While the overall rate of bid protests to GAO have increased by no more than 6 percent in four of the past five years, agencies continue to be sieged with protests for these mega contracts.

Since GSA runs many of these governmentwide acquisition contracts (GWACs), the Federal Acquisition Service is well versed in building in the time to deal with unhappy vendors.

But that doesn’t mean delays and frustrations don’t come with it.

The question some keep coming back to is whether it’s time for agencies just to give every vendor who meets a minimum set of qualifications, such as past performance, technical qualifications and small business participation, a spot on a specific multiple-award contract and let the task order competition process decide the true winners and losers.

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Take the EIS telecommunications contract. By some estimates, as many as 10 vendors submitted bids.

These include all the major carriers, such as AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink, as well as some others like Windstream who haven’t bid on these governmentwide contracts for telecommunication services previously, but still has a significant federal portfolio.

GSA continues to expect to make awards in June, but now the Windstream protest will undoubtedly push back their timeline. A month delay in awards would give some agencies, needing to transition to the EIS from the Networx contract, even more heartburn than they are already feeling.

GAO says it has until July 26 to decide the case. The agency’s initial response to the bid protest still is two weeks away.

In its protest to GAO, Windstream says it has been excluded from the competitive range, and from further participation in the competition. Windstream says it should not have been excluded, and seeks to get back into the ongoing competition.

“Our protest is under a protective order and, because this is a pending matter, we cannot provide any details about the nature of our protest,” said Scott Morris, senior adviser for corporate affairs at Windstream, in an email to Federal News Radio.

An email to Windstream’s lawyer Susan Ebner, a partner at Fortney Scott, also wasn’t returned.

An email to GSA seeking comment on the bid protest also was not returned.

The first protest of EIS came in August 2016 by Compuline International. GAO dismissed the protest a few weeks later on Sept. 6.

DHS is facing a similar set of challenges with its FLASH contract.

The latest set of protests comes after DHS awarded FLASH to 13 companies in November. But the eight vendors who didn’t make the cut submitted protests to GAO. DHS decided to take corrective action instead of letting GAO decide the protests and reopened bidding.

Then in early March, DHS announced 11 new winners under the FLASH contract.  After relooking at bids, DHS decided two of the previous winners were no longer eligible.

In fact, two companies submitted multiple bid protests. Cybermedia Technologies filed two complaints, and Harmonia Holdings Group filed three.

GAO will decide a majority of the FLASH protests in late June, with the two new protests by Cybermedia and Harmonia coming due in early August.

In the meantime, DHS components aren’t waiting for the FLASH contract and the agency is losing out on the discounts that supposedly come from the competition under a multiple-award contract.

For example, the Transportation Security Administration awarded Accenture a $64 million contract for agile tools and services to transform more than 70 enterprise applications.

The challenges GSA and DHS face on these mega contracts are solvable. The question I keep coming back to is why not just let everyone on the contracts and let the competition happen at the task-order level?

GSA has talked about developing an unpriced schedule and let agencies decide the prices at the task-order level. Isn’t this really just the same thing?

If GSA and DHS award everyone bidding a spot on their respective mega contract, the task order competition process will separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff. This would end the delays of awarding the contracts, would significantly reduce the costs of protests to vendors and the government, and let GSA and DHS move onto their next projects.

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