GPO in a hurry to get to the future

Agency gives vendors 30 days for Future Digital System proposals

The Government Printing Office has set aggressive deadlines to acquire a digital dissemination system that will transform a 19th-century printing office into a 21st-century electronic information agency. But some procurement experts say GPO’s haste could slow its Future Digital System project.

Last week, GPO requested bids for a master integrator to design an electronic system for disseminating government publications. Vendors have 30 days to respond to the request for proposals, after which GPO will begin an extensive evaluation of the submissions. GPO officials said they hope to award a contract this summer.

Feedback from vendors influenced GPO’s decision to change the payment structure. The agency envisioned a fixed-price contract, but vendors said it would be difficult to quote the cost of technologies in their proposals before selecting the technologies.

The final RFP states that the government will issue a cost-plus-award-fee contract, in which the vendor gets money for the entire cost of performing the contract plus a fee, or profit, for good performance.

Under such an agreement, the contractor is entitled to payment for unexpected costs that arise after signing the agreement — if those extra costs are justified.

GPO is among several agencies that have had to predict the future in awarding large sums of money. The Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration are undergoing similar digital transformations. The library’s $100 million National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program is an initiative to discover, collect and preserve information that exists only in electronic formats. Similarly, NARA’s flagship project, the Electronic Records Archives, is a $308 million effort to save federal electronic records, regardless of their format, and make them accessible on future hardware and software.

GPO delayed releasing an RFP last December, opting instead to issue a draft RFP in response to vendors’ requests. GPO officials held an industry day during which they met face-to-face with vendors and answered questions. About 15 vendors commented on the draft RFP.

The final 520-page RFP outlines a plan for the contractor to implement the Future Digital System in three releases. Basic functions would be ready by July 2007 and enhancements finished by July 2008.

Mike Wash, GPO’s chief technical officer, said the agency has made progress. “The work that has been completed to compile a comprehensive list of system requirements has been a significant accomplishment,” Wash said.

The new dissemination system must track all versions of official government documents, ensure the authenticity of government information and provide permanent public access to federal data and documents. To preserve and maintain public access to the information, GPO will require compliance with the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) reference model, a domain-neutral framework for managing information, regardless of format.

Government information technology experts said NARA, the Library of Congress and other federal agencies will benefit if GPO’s Future Digital System is a success. Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at Federal Sources, a market research firm, said GPO’s interests go beyond content management. “What I’m sensing from the set of requirements is that this is far more dynamic,” Bjorklund said. GPO, he added, must have the ability “to collect information from across the government…the ability to react to a constantly evolving baseline.”

Industry leaders said they expect vendors and lawmakers to monitor the Future Digital System project closely. In the past, GPO earned a reputation among vendors for choosing winners and losers on subjective grounds, said Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement.

Thousands of commercial businesses compete for GPO contracts to produce and distribute most of the federal government’s information, according to the agency’s 2005 annual report. “This integration upgrade may present an institutional challenge for GPO,” Allen said. “They have traditionally liked to have a lot of control over processes and keep many things in-house.” The Future Digital System project will require GPO to give up some of that control and rely more on partnerships with contractors, he said.

Public Printer Bruce James has earned accolades from government contractors during his three-year tenure for promoting partnerships, Allen said. “This procurement will be one test to see if they have shed this older image,” he added.

GPO officials will have to listen to industry officials and lawmakers. “Prospective contractors need to know that GPO is a legislative branch entity that, as such, gets a lot of oversight from Congress,” Allen said. The contract award requires approval from Congress’ Joint Committee on Printing.

“Technical excellence will be necessary [for the vendor], but so too will be an understanding that they will likely, at some point, be discussing their approach to these committee members, who are not traditionally known as being shy about offering their opinions on what GPO should be doing,”Allen said.

Vendors will undergo scrutiny according to the lawmakers’ clock, which is dictated by congressional sessions. The Joint Committee on Printing, GPO’s oversight committee, will approve funding for the Future Digital System, the RFP states. It lists six congressional reviews to approve, redirect or stop programs. Those six program checkpoints coincide with system releases and major hardware and software purchases.

Some business leaders said waiting for Congress could delay GPO’s aggressive schedule for the Future Digital System. “Agencies have to get approvals all the time, but rarely do you have a solicitation that tells you there’s a gate that we have to go through to get to the next step,” said Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president and counsel at the Professional Services Council. “You could have a temporary stop while they get approval.”

Chvotkin said other circumstances could cause delays. The 30-day turnaround for proposals is too fast, he said, adding that the deadline might limit the competition.

The RFP requires a GPO team to work with the chosen integrator to complete the project, which could be another source of friction, Chvotkin said.

The RFP states that the master integrator will be responsible for making “all decisions as to system design, integration of various components, technology and applications that support [the system’s] functional clusters.” The master integrator “shall be solely responsible for meeting all the requirements,” the RFP states.

GPO, however, has the right to override any of the integrator’s decisions under the terms of the RFP. Chvotkin said industry welcomes some features of that provision. “If GPO employees say, ‘Do it my way,’ and the contractor objects, the contractor is out from any liability,” he said. The language, however, raises questions about the contractor’s timeline and scope for objections. “This is a performance-based contract, it appears, with an awful lot of agency control,” he said.

“I would hope that GPO has a plan for contingency in the event the implementation is delayed or fails,” Chvotkin said, recalling a Defense Information Systems Agency solicitation in which a backup integrator was selected in case the primary systems integrator failed to perform. “The worst-case scenario is that GPO could not meet its mission,” he said.

RFP highlights

The Government Printing Office plans to award a contract this summer for an electronic document dissemination system. GPO’s 520-page request for proposals highlights several aspects of the contract.

  • The agency will award the deal to a master integrator and structure it on a cost-plus-award-fee basis.

  • The contractor will deliver the system in three releases. Deployment will begin in July 2007 and end in July 2008.

  • The system will comply with the Open Archival Information System reference model.

  • — Aliya Sternstein
    James resigns after leading GPO forward

    The head of the Government Printing Office, U.S. Public Printer Bruce James, announced last week that he will leave the agency, likely around the end of the year.

    When James took office three and a half years ago, he pledged to remain public printer for three to five years, long enough to reposition GPO for the future. He said he believes the agency has accomplished that mission.

    Under James’ leadership, GPO has created an information technology workforce that supports the entire agency, planned a next-generation digital information system and moved into the business of secure and intelligent documents.

    Many federal agencies now use paper or plastic documents embedded with security features. The new U.S. passports, for example, will contain tiny microchips and antennae.

    — Aliya Sternstein

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