A new view of MOBIS

Services GWAC indirectly supports IT projects

When the General Services Administration began to push services into its schedule programs in the 1990s, the services were largely information technology-oriented. The Mission-Oriented Business Integrated Services (MOBIS) Schedule was meant to provide general help to agencies that the specialized technology schedules could not.

On the first MOBIS Schedule, which GSA awarded in 1997, vendors’ services included quality management, business process re-engineering and customer service training.

GSA has refreshed the contract since then to add new services, fine-tune details and include more vendors. The most recent refresh was published June 20. The original 1997 contract remains the foundation of the program, however. By any measure, the contract has been a success. By the end of fiscal 2005, cumulative MOBIS sales totaled more than $10 billion, according to GSA figures, compared with a total of $734 million at the end of fiscal 2000.

The Defense Department is the biggest user of MOBIS, accounting for more than 70 percent of the contract’s business. The Energy Department comes in a distant second at about 11 percent. Almost every major agency in the federal government has used MOBIS.

And the momentum seems to be continuing. In the first quarter of the current fiscal year, Federal Sources Inc. (FSI) estimated MOBIS sales at nearly $790 million, compared with a little more than $669 million for the same period in the previous year.

GSA Acquisition Director Ralph Lentz, who oversees the MOBIS program, said he expects sales in fiscal 2006 to be $3 billion. In fiscal 2005, business through the contract totaled $2.6 billion.

The number of vendors using the program has also exploded, from 113 at the end of fiscal 1997 to 1,700 contract holders today.

It’s somewhat ironic that although GSA did not intend agencies to use MOBIS for technology and IT-related services, much of its recent growth is probably because of its use in conjunction with IT solutions and services programs.

GSA changed the contract’s name in 2005 — it had been called the Management, Organizational and Business Improvement Services Schedule — to better reflect its current nature.

The Federal Supply Service has worked hard to get the GSA schedule contracts to include services, and MOBIS was created because of the need for professional services not covered by Schedule 70, the IT contract, said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at FSI.

“But now MOBIS is being used more and more for tech-based programs that accumulate complex consulting needs,” he said.

Although agencies and vendors may not use MOBIS to acquire IT services, they often use it to buy the consulting services and preparatory work that precede major IT competitions, said Steve Shane, managing director of Accenture’s federal government practice. The services usually are not attached to a particular solutions procurement, enabling agencies to do the conceptual, preliminary work without an obligation to buy or build something specific, Shane said.

“The IT-specific schedules don’t allow for those more general consulting skills,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of work with the Navy, for example, on such things as e-strategy and [business] transformation topics that don’t have much of an IT flavor themselves, though the downstream impact on IT could eventually be considerable.”

Likewise, Shane said, Accenture has done jobs for the Department of Health and Human Services that helped it conduct electronic procurement more effectively. E-procurement is a technology-based goal, but the work the Accenture team performed under MOBIS concerned general matters, such as the overall process and vendor selection.

Before GSA schedules offered those services, agencies included them as part of their regularly competed procurements, said Skip Derick, vice president of GSA schedules services programs at Anteon. Once they became available with the flexibility of the preselected, easy-order process provided by the schedules, agencies quickly started to use that option instead, Derick said.

“There’s a growing need [from government agencies] for such things as business process re-engineering, strategic planning and program integration,” Derick said. “The fact that people can look at MOBIS and see the kind of functionality it contains and the type of tasking it allows means it’s likely only to become more popular.”

MOBIS is also useful for agencies that increasingly need qualified people to help them mobilize their programs, Bjorklund said.

Agencies “have wrung their hands for years about people leaving government, but the bigger problem is if they have enough acquisition professionals to oversee the IT work they want done,” he said. “Agencies that don’t have that talent are turning to MOBIS to help them with acquisition and [procurement] oversight.”

Typical contracts awarded through MOBIS are not large, usually worth $200,000 to $400,000 on average. But that is an indication of the particular advantage of that makes MOBIS so attractive for agency needs.

“The scope of work of large system contracts tends not to include those things that are not strictly IT related, such as policy analysis and process re-engineering work,” said Joyce Doria, vice president and MOBIS program manager at Booz Allen Hamilton. “They tend not to be budgeted for, and so are generally paid out of nondiscretionary funds. And the flexibility of MOBIS is particularly suited to making use of those funds.”

MOBIS’ flexibility was proven, for example, when the State Department was concerned about security issues after the bombings of U.S. embassies in 1998 in Kenya and Tanzania. It used discretionary funds to get the right expertise quickly through MOBIS, she said.

Likewise, the flexibility and speed of MOBIS, through which awards are often made just a few weeks after the initial order, were invaluable after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“Right after then, there was a demand for many fast-turnaround jobs where there were only some three months to complete the entire job,” Doria said. “That obviously didn’t allow for the normal procurement process. But MOBIS gave the government the chance to do studies and other work that it probably couldn’t have done otherwise in the time.”

Agencies can get help through the contract in two or three weeks, she said, instead of the six months or more that the regular procurement cycle can require.

MOBIS’ growing popularity may lead to more competition for this type of work from other agencies.

They see the opportunities provided by the kinds of services MOBIS offers as a way to pay for their own contract shops, Doria said. Some agencies could compete by creating different scopes of work that will attract users who otherwise would have gone to MOBIS to instead use their own agencies’ contracting vehicles, she said.

There are certain parts of these departmentwide contracts — the departmental equivalent of GSA’s governmentwide acquisition contract vehicles — that could be very competitive with MOBIS, Shane said. GSA’s upcoming Alliant IT services contract will include some of the same kind of work that MOBIS offers, he said, although it’s not yet clear what its final form will be.

But MOBIS will remain popular with agencies because GSA acts as a disinterested third party for procurements and because vendors are validated ahead of time, Doria said. In the end, “no one can turn around and complain that the contractors who get the work shouldn’t have,” she said. “MOBIS will still get its fair share of work, as it should.”

Living in SINsThe Mission-Oriented Business Integrated Services (MOBIS) contract is organized according to Special Item Numbers (SINs) that describe the range of services available from contractors. Larger contractors might be able to offer the full range of services described in the eight SINs, while smaller companies might specialize in just one area.

Contractors can propose offering a full range of services to support the requirements specified in an agency’s scope of work, or they can choose to offer services in specific SINs, which is a useful flexibility for smaller firms.

The SINs are:

  • SIN 874-1 Consulting Services — Expert advice, assistance, guidance or counseling in support of agencies’ mission-oriented business functions.

  • SIN 874-2 Facilitation Services — Facilitation and related decision-support services for agencies engaged in collaboration efforts; working groups; or integrated product, processes or self-directed teams.

  • SIN 874-3 Survey Services — Expert consultation, assistance and deliverables associated with all aspects of surveying within the context of MOBIS.

  • SIN 874-4 Training Services — Commercial training packages to meet agency needs related to business services.

  • SIN 874-5 Support Products — Items used in support of services, including workbooks, training manuals, slides, videotapes, CDs, DVDs, software or other tools.

  • SIN 874-6 Competitive Sourcing Support — Support in conducting commercial activities studies using the Office of Management and Budget’s Circular A-76, strategic sourcing studies, privatization studies, public/private partnerships, Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act evaluations and other competitive sourcing projects or efforts.

  • SIN 874-7 Program Integration and Project Management Services — Management or integration of programs and projects.

  • SIN 874-99 Introduction of New Services — Introduction of procedures or products that industry is developing or improving that have not yet been introduced to the federal government or are not currently available under any General Services Administration contract.

The most-used SIN by far is consulting services. It accounted for more than $2 billion of total sales in fiscal 2005. The second most popular is program integration and management services, which posted more than $260 million in sales.

MOBIS orders must have a minimum value of $300; the suggested maximum is $1 million, although single orders worth more than that are not uncommon. Agencies can place orders of less than $2,500 directly with contractors.

IT: Forbidden or not?

Although the Mission-Oriented Business Integrated Services (MOBIS) contract is not intended for information technology-specific solutions, the solicitation language is ambiguous.

In the scope of work establishing the contract, the General Services Administration said that when issuing task orders under MOBIS, agencies cannot use the vehicle for the acquisition of supplies “other than that integral to the task and incidental to the role of management improvement.”

On the other hand, it also said that the acquisition of IT under MOBIS isn’t forbidden, though “it must be clear that the software, hardware or IT services acquired must be incidental to the management improvement effort and directly linked to the successful performance of the task.”

There are no specified definitions of “incidental,” GSA said. Agency contracting officers must use their judgment in determining what qualifies.

Typical examples of services not appropriate for purchase under MOBIS include IT systems integration, network services, volume IT hardware purchases, software or software development. Many contracting experts interpret that list to mean that technical IT services can’t be supplied but services such as studies on IT strategy or advice on procurement or project planning are fair game.

It is, therefore, up to the agencies to decide which path to follow. So far, most of them seem to have chosen the path of using MOBIS as a stand-alone vehicle for front-end preparatory work followed by a separate IT solutions procurement later.

But there’s nothing to stop agencies from using both MOBIS and Schedule 70 under a single procurement, said Steve Shane, managing director of Accenture’s federal government practice, although whether they do or not depends on their procurement expertise and a certain level of comfort with using the MOBIS schedule.

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