Navy praises new SPS, but critics remain

While some users continue to criticize the Defense Department's $326 million Standard Procurement System, a key piece of the Pentagon's "paperless contracting" program, top Navy officials have praised the latest version of the software.

Elliott Branch, the Navy's executive director of acquisition and business management, who this January stopped installation of SPS at Navy installations worldwide because of what he termed "show-stopper" software glitches, concluded that after extensive tests of the latest version of SPS software, Version 4.1a, the software "is ready for deployment to Navy sites," according to a memo he sent to the SPS Navy program manager last month. Branch called the software stable and its performance "accurate, predictable and repeatable."

DOD officials plan for SPS to help the agency move to a totally paperless contracting environment by Jan. 1, a target publicly and repeatedly backed by John Hamre, the deputy secretary of Defense. DOD intends to deploy SPS to 40,000 procurement officials and contracting officers at 860 locations worldwide. SPS, developed by American Management Systems Inc., is designed to automate the front end of the department's complex contracting process. DOD officials hoped the system would make it easier for contracting officers to electronically manage the process of writing, awarding and managing procurements.

Despite Branch's endorsement, some field users remain skeptical that SPS will work as envisioned. In a letter to FCW, Doug McDaniel, a contracting officer at the Crane (Ind.) Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, called SPS "one of the biggest white elephants sold to DOD since the Spruce Goose," referring to the famed 1940s Howard Hughes flying boat that was built to transport men and materials over long distances. The boat made one flight at an altitude not much higher than a house [see letter, Page 18].

In an interview, McDaniel said he based his criticisms of SPS on an older version of the software, Version 3.5, but he still doubts the ability of the newest version to manage complex DOD acquisitions such as purchases of ships and aircraft. He said the software would not work well unless there is an "order of magnitude improvement" between Version 4.1a and the final Version 5.0, which is designed to manage complex procurements.

McDaniel, who said he "unplugged" SPS earlier this year, said he conducts paperless contracting using Microsoft Corp.'s Word. He said it could handle such functions performed by SPS, such as Federal Acquisition Regulation clause selection, because "the FAR is digital," and he used other Microsoft products to add templates and matrices. McDaniel added that he could add functionality with commercial software packages with a small team of developers "in one year for $10 million."

AMS officials declined to comment on SPS at the request of DOD.

The Naval Facilities and Engineering Command also has opted to develop and install its own front-end procurement software, called the Field Office Consolidated Automation System. FOCAS - which runs on a wide range of Microsoft operating systems, including Windows 95, 98 and NT - cost the command about $1 million to develop and offers much of the functionality of SPS. The command distributes the system for free. (For more information, visit focas.navfac.navy.mil.)

Another Navy user wrote in an e-mail message that while he was "hopeful" that the newest version of the SPS software would finally resolve glitches, he was doubtful. "I see SPS issues from three aspects," the user wrote. "The first [issue] is how good the software is at accomplishing the business process; the second issue is program management and deployment of the system; and the third is the technology advancement in the marketplace and the use of the Internet in e-commerce. I believe SPS should get a failing grade in all three areas."

The user declined to be named because, he wrote, "Messengers bearing bad news about this program have been shot and are [lying] on the road to SPS nirvana."

Maj. Gen. Timothy Malishenko, commander of the Defense Contract Management Command and the executive program officer for SPS, said, "The Navy is a tough customer," but he believes the SPS program has been responsive to the Navy's comments and complaints.

But Malishenko said SPS is designed to deliver a standard product DOD-wide, "which means everyone cannot do [contracting] the way they used to do it.... There is going to have to be some element of change and adaptation to use this product."

Malishenko said field users should understand that DOD scaled back the individual requirements that the users would like to see incorporated in the software, from 1,000 user requirements before award to 299 after award. "Based on user feedback, [we planned] additional functionality and productivity enhancements beyond the baseline for the program," he said. But, he said, this will be done through a "scheduled, incremental approach."

Wiley "Pete" Horsley, senior procurement analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Interior, believes the Pentagon's problems with SPS were caused by changes to the commercial version.

The AMS software works for Interior, Horsely said, because the agency "took the philosophy, based in prior experiences, to stay as close to the commercial baseline as possible.... [DOD officials] bought the software, [and] they had a list of 300 changes they wanted to make.... There's costs and delays when you get buried in an agency-unique system," he said

Horsely said Interior has installed the software in 52 of 66 Interior field offices.

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