Apps.gov: The new look in government procurement*
*But the same old procurement system
By all appearances, the Obama administration’s new online storefront for information technology represents a revolution in government procurement.
Apps.gov, which launched Sept. 15, looks and operates like public e-commerce sites, with stylish product pages, the iconic shopping cart, and “Checkout” and “Continue shopping” tabs. And the cart is roomy: Shoppers could use Apps.gov to make purchases from as little as 68 cents a month for Google Message Security Email Service, to a few hundred dollars for Saleforce.com applications, to as much as $5.5 million for an electronic commerce and auction tool.
That’s the vision, anyway. The actual shopping experience is a little different.
True, Apps.gov could eventually revolutionize how the federal government buys commercial technology by creating a process as effective and efficient as those offered by sites such as Amazon.com and eBay.
But experts who have started to test-drive the site say the initial version is just a user-friendly version of GSA Advantage, the General Services Administration’s decade-old Web site for buying products from GSA schedule contracts.
Furthermore, some experts say the site doesn’t go far enough to be considered innovative.
“The practicality of Apps.gov isn’t there,” said Jaime Gracia, vice president of federal services at Concepts and Strategies, a strategic communications company.
The Obama administration clearly intends for Apps.gov to become a one-stop shopping site for commercial technology and services. But as of now, it has limited offerings, and many vendors said they were unaware of the site until its launch was announced and are now scrambling to learn more about how to participate.
Vivek Kundra, federal chief information officer and chief evangelist for Apps.gov, said it is built on the GSA Advantage platform to ensure that it complies with federal procurement policy. GSA had an interagency team of technology and acquisition officials build Apps.gov, and both sites have the same workflow and purchasing process.
When an agency places an order on either site, the contractor is notified immediately via e-mail that it has received an order. When the contractor downloads the order, the agency then receives an e-mail notice, and when the contractor updates the order status — for example, to say the product has been shipped — the system updates the customer's history and sends another e-mail message to the agency.
Beyond the effort to put a more user-friendly face on GSA Advantage, Apps.gov has been trumpeted as the government’s embrace of cloud computing, a model in which applications do not reside on an organization’s local servers but instead are hosted at a remote data center and accessed online. But that revolution will have to wait awhile longer, too, because GSA has not yet awarded any contracts for cloud computing services.
GSA CIO Casey Coleman, who has been closely involved in developing Apps.gov, said the site remains a work in progress. “This is not the final solution,” she said. “It’s the beginning of the final solution.”
The Apps.gov announcement has generated a lot of buzz in the IT industry largely because of Kundra’s ambitious vision.
For starters, Kundra said that by making it quick and easy for agencies to adopt cloud computing, Apps.gov will help reduce redundancy and costs.
One of Kundra’s other aims for Apps.gov is to streamline the government’s procurement process by providing a commercial-like system for buying commercial technology, with GSA handling the buying for agencies, as it does under its multiple-award schedules program.
In addition to cloud IT services, the store is organized into three other categories of applications: business, productivity and social media.
Unlike the other categories, social-media applications, such as Facebook and the blog site WordPress, are free and based on license agreements that GSA negotiated with the companies. The workflow and buying processes don't apply to social-media tools because they are free, but officials urge agencies to read the terms of agreement carefully to make sure they can adhere to them.
Administration officials, particularly Kundra, are intent on carrying out President Barack Obama’s agenda of infusing government operations with efficiency, effectiveness and transparency. Apps.gov follows on the heels of Data.gov, a portal for reams of public data, and the Federal IT Dashboard, for gauging the performance of technology programs.
“The president has challenged us to make sure that we’re utilizing technology to ensure that we have a transparent and open government,” Kundra said, adding that he’s going to answer that call.
Kundra and other innovators have watched the private sector leap on new technologies while the federal government got left behind, bogged down with rigid and complex acquisition rules and overweight bureaucracy.
Kundra is out to change that with Obama’s backing.
“We want to make sure we leverage innovation as it’s happening around the country and throughout the federal government,” Kundra told reporters Sept. 15, the day of the Apps.gov announcement.
Ready or not…
But many people in the federal IT community find it a puzzling beginning. They say Apps.gov does nothing to address underlying problems with the acquisition process.
“When you go behind the curtain, the same acquisition process is in your face,” Gracia said, adding that officials have not tackled the root problem of procurement when it comes to technology: “the glacial pace of acquisition.”
Indeed, the services in the business and productivity categories on Apps.gov are already available through the GSA schedule, and the Federal Acquisition Regulation rules that apply to the MAS program apply to Apps.gov, too. To get services listed on Apps.gov, vendors who are already doing business with agencies through the schedules program simply need to upload information about their current services and put them in the appropriate categories on Apps.gov.
Experts said Apps.gov was an attempt to quickly get something on the Web in the name of innovation while sidestepping true reforms. Officials can cite Apps.gov as proof that they are doing something and showing forward motion, Gracia said.
Many experts said the surprise launch of Apps.gov flies in the face of the administration’s other priorities — transparency, openness and collaboration with industry.
Contractors and agencies can visit a live Web site, but they’re unsure how to use it or how procurement rules relate to it because officials haven’t briefed them. Contractors say they would have liked to know more about Apps.gov before it went live so their companies’ products could have been listed on the site from the beginning.
As always, companies “want to make sure they are positioning their products and services wherever the customer may shop for them,” said Trey Hodgkins, vice president of national security and procurement policy at TechAmerica.
“This is going to shake up industry,” agreed Esther Burgess, senior vice president and deputy chief operating officer at IT services company Vistronix. For example, she said vendors were hunting for answers on how to get their services listed on Apps.gov, and they weren’t initially finding answers.
That said, she also expressed faith in companies’ ability to adapt quickly. “To survive, you have to change,” she said.
Beyond the technical aspects of using Apps.gov, some industry sources aren’t sure what to make of the emphasis on cloud computing, which has garnered so much attention lately.
Cloud computing holds out the promise of reducing the cost of IT infrastructure by allowing agencies to use commercially available technology that virtualizes servers, databases and applications, which they would otherwise need to design and build themselves. Administration officials want to make setting up data infrastructures more efficient and less expensive than the existing system of building a multitude of individual data centers.
GSA officials recently closed a request for quotes and now are evaluating bids for services that include cloud storage devices, virtual machines and Web-based hosting. GSA officials plan to award a blanket purchase agreement soon so the contractors can begin selling those services on Apps.gov.
But some experts say agencies don’t really understand cloud computing and have too many unanswered questions to be buying the services.
“It’s ahead of its time,” a former GSA official said. “I don’t want to say that because it sounds old-fashioned, but it’s true.”
TechAmerica President Phil Bond applauded the launch of Apps.gov but said, “We look forward to reviewing the details.”
Administration officials are urging patience and said Apps.gov is just a sign of things to come. Kundra cautioned that it will take time for the federal government to change its buying habits when it comes to commercial technology and processes.
“This is the first step in a decade-long journey,” he said.