OMB: Don’t count on TMF money for EIS contract transition

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Less than two years out from their deadline, some agencies have expressed concerns over whether they’ll have the time and funds to transition over to the new Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS) contract on-schedule.

The last time the General Services Administration asked agencies to transition to a new telecommunications contract — in this case, the Networx telecom contract — it took 33 months longer than expected and cost the government an extra $395 million.

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Despite agency concerns, GSA and the White House see the transition to the EIS contract as a major milestone to achieving a number of the Trump administration’s modernization goals.

The president’s 2017 IT modernization report, for example, mentions the EIS transition more than 20 times. This year’s President’s Management Agenda identifies IT modernization as one of three “drivers of transformation” in government aimed to continue well beyond the current administration.

“It’s considered absolutely key to moving modernization forward across government,” Crystal Philcox, the deputy assistant commissioner for category management at GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service, said Tuesday at an ACT-IAC Network Modernization Forum in Washington, D.C.

But Margie Graves, the deputy federal chief information officer, said she understands how agencies feel overwhelmed by the upcoming EIS deadline.

“It’s so terribly difficult to do a transition during a transition. Here we are in a presidential transition, we’ve just gone through that. People are somewhat, I would say, exhausted,” Graves said. “Everybody has a day job. This is in addition to it. But I would argue that if you don’t invest in doing this, then on the other side, you’ll still be in this kind of a loop. You won’t save anything.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers on Capitol Hill continue to hammer out the details of the fiscal 2019 budget, leaving agencies uncertain about what increase, if any, they can expect in modernization funding.

Agencies have expressed particular interest in how much money the governmentwide Technology Modernization Fund (TMF), created under the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act, will receive next fiscal year.

In the 2018 omnibus spending bill passed in March, Congress gave the TMF $100 million for the rest of the fiscal year, falling short of the $228 million the Trump administration asked for in its budget proposal.

Earlier this month, the Office of Management and Budget awarded the first round of TMF spending to the Agriculture Department, the Energy Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. All told, those awards depleted the fund by about $45 million.

Looking ahead to next year’s funding, OMB has requested $210 million for TMF.

The House Appropriations Committee last week approved a spending bill that would provide $150 million for the TMF.

However, Elizabeth Cain, the acting executive director of the TMF Program Management Office at OMB, said agencies shouldn’t count on the centralized modernization fund to help them make the EIS transition.

“What we have been talking about is that on EIS, agencies have known that it has been coming for quite some time, and they’ve been given a lot of time to plan. And really, for the Technology Modernization Fund, the idea is that it will be used to fund new projects that aren’t in the current pipeline,” Cain said. “I would suggest that as agencies are thinking about all the different resources at their disposal, they perhaps think about it in that way, and consider using internal agency resources.”

Cain instead proposed that agencies look to their working capital funds, also set by the MGT Act, to help them transition over to the new telecoms contract.

Telecoms cost savings under EIS

At GSA, Philcox said agencies will get more bang for their buck once they transition to EIS.

“For EIS, we really started the negotiations for pricing at the Networx level, and then negotiated down from there. We are looking at a potential for about a 21 percent savings on telecoms spend under EIS. If you need a business case, you don’t need to look far. … The ability for us to create that kind of buying power is huge,” Philcox said.

But to get over that finish line, agencies need the money, manpower and time management to pull it off.  Philcox said she urges agencies to discuss the path to EIS transition early and often with their GSA liaisons.

“We’re really trying to listen to agencies and understand what kind of issues they have in those areas and really help them get those solicitations out quickly. What we’re seeing is, in some agencies, they’re treating it as a critical project,” she said.

While some agencies have expressed concerns about meeting the EIS transition deadline, the Defense Department has already made three awards in their transition off the Networx telecoms contract.

“The bottom line is, we’ve been doing a lot of planning. We started early, working with a lot of our customers, forming our own contractor support team, validating inventory and developing our strategies. That’s the key, you’ve got to start early,” said James Clatterbuck, the Defense Information System Agency’s Networx/NS2020-EIS program manager. “We got really good deals and significant savings.”

In addition, DoD has endeavored to get rid of communications channels that aren’t integrated well, such as those built on a technology called time-division multiplexing (TDM) that’s getting harder and more expensive to maintain.

Under orders from its chief information officer, DoD is on-track to migrate away from TDM by 2023.

“I’ve been working through all these transitions. Every contract is different, everything has its challenges, but change happens, and we’ve got to grab hold of it and make it the best we can,” Clatterbuck said.

Gary Wall, a former Department of Health and Human Services telecoms branch chief and Networx program manager, and currently the CEO of Coastal Communications Consulting Group, said smaller agencies need to keep pace with larger agencies when it comes to making the EIS transition.

“The risk that’s involved in here is that when a DHS, or DoD, or HHS, or a Treasury [Department] or one of the larger agencies puts out their fair opportunity. The vendors — the vendors that the small agencies should get, the ones that would give them the best price points and the most use — are so tied up responding to those big, mega RFPs that are out there, that they decide not to bid on that. And so those other agencies are going to be left with vendors that are their second, third, fourth or ninth or 10th best choice,” Wall said.

In the event some agencies take longer than May 2020 to make the EIS transition, Graves said the Trump administration is willing to lend a helping hand — provided that they’ve made an earnest effort to meet the deadline.

“I am willing to stand up for an agency that has a qualified plan, with enough detail that we can actually stamp it with the quality seal of approval, and give them a little extra time. However, I am not willing to have the conversation about, ‘I need to modernize,’ and then somebody stealthily under the radar is not doing the planning, and is actually planning to lift and shift at the last minute. And then they raise their hand again after two years and say, ‘Oops.’ That’s not a valid approach,” Graves said.