We can’t afford another 6-year telecom transition
The General Services Administration is working on the fourth-generation acquisition vehicle for obtaining telecommunications services. Since at least the breakup of the old Bell Telephone network in the 1980s, the government has steadily shifted toward buying more and building less.
EIS has just received bids from industry for a $50 billion deal, but the hard work is just beginning.
The last transition, from FTS 2001 to Networx, was a mess. Although it was the second and theoretically easier switch, it often looked like two baseball outfielders letting a ball drop between them because each assumed the other would catch it. The process took more than six years and cost the government more than $300 million in potential savings, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis. Although Networx has saved the government significant money, it didn't come close to maximizing that potential and did not take early advantage of new technology and its capabilities.
Fast-forward to today. The process to compete EIS has had some fresh thinking and innovation. Industry representatives were brought into discussions early. There were multiple industry days, blog posts, one-on-one company interchanges and industry workgroups. From the time the request for proposals was released until bids were submitted on Feb. 22, GSA answered more than 1,000 questions and posted each response on its Interact website.
That's the good news. The bad news is that GSA will announce the EIS winners early next year, and agencies must be ready to present their requirements and inventories and conduct a fair opportunity process to select the company that will provide their services. And then those agencies must go through the transition from their incumbent network services company to the new provider.
The first question to ask is: Who is in charge? Is it GSA, the Office of Management and Budget or agencies themselves? What happens if an agency doesn't make the transition in a timely fashion? Who's accountable if there are system outages? How can GSA, a central agency with no enforcement powers, ensure that the transition is effectively planned and executed?
The way to ensure those important questions are addressed is to provide clear rewards, punishments and incentives. GSA is not the agency to do that. GSA officials provide the infrastructure and central resources to execute the government's policies, but having them send directives to Cabinet-level departments is like getting a letter from accounting on how to prosecute the war. First sergeants don't take those letters seriously.
Making EIS a success is going to take some top executive leadership. Saving a few billion dollars might not make much difference in the overall federal budget, but it does matter. Adopting more cost-effective network services boosts the government's ability to serve the public, and it's basically done on a self-funding and sustainable basis because of the advances in the industry.
Companies have invested tens of millions of dollars to bid on EIS. They rightfully believe the government has an opportunity to modernize its service delivery infrastructure with support from a robust telecommunications sector.
Yet all those opportunities could be squandered if agencies fail to move smartly. Letting the transition again take six years would be a black mark on the government's leadership capabilities. OMB is the oversight agency with the responsibility to ensure a quick transition. It should direct agencies to get it done and publish progress reports and letter grades on implementation.
It would be a shame to let all the hard work that's already happened go to waste.
Bob Woods is president of Topside Consulting Group and former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service.