When Clint Boulton wrote about the competition for the cloud services proposals that have gone to the General Services Administration, he correctly pointed out that Google, IBM and Microsoft all have products that are essentially similar.
The three companies are proposing to provide Web mail and other office applications in a cloud-based environment. All of them will cost about the same, and all will provide federal workers pretty much the same thing. But that doesn’t mean that these companies have an equal chance of winning. It doesn’t even mean that any of them will win.
The GSA has great latitude in awarding contracts, and the companies have great latitude in what they propose to deliver. In addition, it’s a certainty that whoever eventually does win the contract award will find the decision being appealed. So any move to cloud services will happen only when something final comes out of the process. But there’s no guarantee that the end result will resemble the initial proposals.
First, it’s important to remember that federal government contracting is rife with rules that attempt to make sure that the government gets the best overall deal, that no unfair practices are taking place and that a number of Congressionally mandated requirements are met. Second, it’s not unusual for the GSA to ask for modifications to a proposal to reflect changes in technology, the products in question or to meet emerging requirements that weren’t in the original RFP.
It’s also not unusual for one-time competitors to decide to team up to win a contract so they can provide a capability at a price that no one else can offer. And, of course, it’s possible that the GSA will decide that all of the proposals are deficient, and not award the contract to anyone. All of these things happen routinely in government contracting.
In the case of IT contracts, there’s a big advantage in being the incumbent contractor providing a service. You already know exactly what’s going on; you already know the people awarding the contract; and you know exactly how you’ll do the migration. Because of this, you might be able to propose a solution that has the best credibility. It also helps a lot if you have long experience in crafting winning proposals. You know exactly how to present your products and solutions so that they meet the requirements, stated and implied, of the procurement.
All Bets Are Off if Congress Reviews GSA Decision
If there’s one company that leads in this group, it’s IBM. Despite the fact that IBM is primarily a computer hardware, software and services vendor, this company is good enough at federal contracting that it’s won systems integration contracts for everything from helicopters to spacecraft. The fact that IBM is also the incumbent, that federal employees are already used to IBM’s Lotus product line, and that IBM should have the easiest time in migrating existing Lotus users to Lotus-in-the-cloud won’t be lost on the people evaluating the proposal.
But that doesn’t mean that IBM will have an automatic win. The GSA does pay attention to the proposed cost, and if a company proposes a credible solution that’s significantly more cost effective than the company with what might be seen as the best technical solution, they might win anyway. As unlikely as it may seem, the GSA really does try to keep a tight hand on the purse strings, and has been known to be flexible about technical requirements if it will substantially lower the price.
But to win, the proposed solution will have to be credible. IBM probably can demonstrate that it can meet the government’s needs in terms of responsiveness, security (even if this product isn’t yet FISMA certified) and the ability to meet the needs of very large organizations. Microsoft, which has a long history in government contracting, although not as long as IBM which won its first government contract in the 19th century, can point to vast installations of desktop, server and Web software throughout the government. But Google might have problems in this area. In addition, all of those Gmail outages, the occasional security breach and the Google cloud’s growing pains could give the government evaluators pause.
Or they might not. Google might be able to convince the GSA that it can deliver everything the federal government wants, and the GSA might be in a mood to take a break from IBM and Microsoft. But whatever solution gets chosen will have to be justified, and that’s where we’ll see exactly what made the difference. And then if anyone is still paying attention, we’ll learn more during the appeals. Or we might not.
The only thing you can really count on with the GSA cloud services contract is that it won’t really be over at the end of September. There’s no assurance that whatever company gets the win will really be the winner. There may not even be one winner or even a winner at all. The arbiter of what’s best for the government is the GSA, and ultimately they’ll decide using their own criteria what’s best for the federal government. Unless, of course, Congress gets involved.