The spirit of the EIS program is modernization, but it seems pressure to meet established timelines may be working counter to that goal.
The Government Accountability Office's most recent report on the state of the Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS) transition process raises serious concerns about whether federal agencies are doing what's necessary to ensure their long term success. The spirit of the EIS program is modernization, but it seems pressure to meet established timelines may be working counter to that goal. The good news is, there is still an opportunity to get it right. Now is the time to revisit and update the EIS transition timeline to ensure we realize the full benefits of this extraordinary opportunity.
Concerns about the health of the EIS process emerged when Carol Harris previewed the GAO report findings in congressional testimony in March. According to the report, federal agencies are struggling with the EIS transition and are risking repeat of same sort of delays that plagued the prior Networx transition — costing nearly $400 million over original projections.
The good news is all 19 agencies surveyed by the GAO do plan to fully transition to the EIS contract before their current contracts expire in May 2023. Some solicitations are starting to emerge. Yet far too many agencies are clinging to "like-for-like" orders and other outdated services available on the contract, rather than newer network technologies like software-defined wide area networks (SD-WAN) that the General Services Administration included as options in the current EIS contract. The choice to stay with the status quo may help agencies make up ground on the transition timeline, but it comes at the expense of an enormous lost opportunity for network modernization.
The COVID-19 pandemic complicates matters further. It has set federal agencies scrambling to manage a massive IT undertaking shifting to telework for the foreseeable future. Those demands likely will exacerbate any EIS transition challenges or delays agencies were already facing.
As GSA doesn't have enforcement authority on EIS transition deadlines, some lawmakers are calling for consequences for agencies that continue to lag behind. This kind of enforcement only incentivizes agencies to prioritize expediency over long-term modernization goals. To combat the potential negative impact of a rush to meet deadlines for deadline's sake, the GSA should revise the current transition timeline to make sure these agencies get it done right – and not just done on time.
Understandably, the GSA may find an adjusted timeline a difficult pill to swallow, as a strict timeline is designed to prevent costly delays and motivate agencies to move quickly on transition. But flexibility with the transition timeline could make all the difference when it comes to successful transition of our government IT infrastructure.
The GSA has been very forward thinking in its approach to the EIS, demonstrating its commitment to best outcomes. While the original Network Services 2020 whitepaper and EIS contract were written nearly five years ago, GSA has demonstrated flexibility in updating the contract to reflect technological progress since then. Their foresight, for example, includes the recent addition of SD-WAN services to the contract — an apt solution for federal agencies struggling with increasing bandwidth demands. Agencies like the Department of the Interior, with widely distributed field offices across the country, cannot afford to build a modern network on 25-year-old technologies. The GSA should be commended for its genuine commitment to moving government infrastructures into a new era. However, in the current circumstances, their strict timeline works counter to those best intentions.
Agencies seem to possess an earnest desire to do the "right" thing with the transition. In fact, agencies in the GAO report cite "complexity of the transition," closely followed by a lack of relevant IT personnel to carry out the transition work, as the leading factors delaying their transition efforts. But the combination of these challenges, complications from a global pandemic, and increasingly punitive threats, seems to yield an alarming number of "winner take all" awards, with "like for like" requirements prioritized and inconsistent guidance in the statements of work. The reliance on "winner take all" awards is especially concerning, since it puts many of the newer primes at a significant disadvantage during the bidding process and limits the options available to agencies. If the GSA does not intervene to relieve some of the pressure driving these less-than-ideal decisions, we're going to be dealing with the same network performance symptoms in five years' time - with no shortage of capital expended in the interim.
Rather than punishing federal agencies for their difficulties with the EIS transition, the GSA should relax the current milestones to give agencies time to regroup and amend their transition plans. Agencies should stop forward motion on not-yet-awarded or issued FO solicitations so they can amend with upgrade specifications or "connect the dots" statements of work. The GAO report already provides several strong recommendations to agencies to help improve their transition planning, and this added step to adjust the timeline in line with reality will make it easier for agencies to get their IT houses in order – especially in light of the added pressures of the pandemic.
Network planning is an incredibly complex undertaking, fraught with many challenges and intricacies that can frustrate even the most well-resourced organizations – public and private sector alike. But this is an opportunity for the GSA to maintain its leadership role and ensure this process is done correctly. With continued support, education, and good faith efforts from both the GSA and federal agencies, the resulting network modernization will benefit all federal agencies and their constituents in the long term.