GSA plots path ahead for once-troubled acquisition management system

Thursday - 12/19/2013, 4:02am EST

Jared Serbu reports.

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When the General Services Administration launched its System for Award Management (SAM) a year-and-a-half ago, there was trouble right away. It was slow and had frequent outages.

Then, several months later, a serious cybersecurity vulnerability popped up.

But GSA says it has now fixed the system, and the path it's charted for the next 10 years of IT systems that handle government contracting will take a drastically different path — open architecture, open source code, a marketplace for third-party apps, and the government as the system integrator.

SAM was supposed to consolidate eight federal data repositories that are used across the government in the day-to-day management of the acquisition process. So far, three of those legacy systems have been folded into SAM: the Central Contractor Registration (CCR) system, the Excluded Parties List System (EPLS) and the Online Representations and Certifications Applications (ORCA).

After more than a year of work squashing bugs, GSA officials say the system is now pretty stable. It hasn't suffered an unplanned outage since August, it's undergone a full battery of cyber penetration tests, and it's just received a new authority to operate (ATO).

Overall, said Kevin Youel Page, an assistant commissioner in GSA's Federal Acquisition Service, the system is much more usable.

"We've had a great deal of effort put into reducing the wait times for help desk calls, the call wait times are dramatically down and the number of calls to our help desks are dramatically down," he told an IT industry audience Tuesday at GSA's headquarters in Washington. "We're starting to see that some of the growing pains of a new system are being worked through, and we're starting to see that the mission is being delivered in ways that we were having a hard time explaining a year ago."

More confidence in SAM

Now that the system is working, agencies are starting to see some of the benefits GSA originally envisioned from consolidating disparate IT systems that didn't communicate with one another into a single environment.

For example, GSA cites a 91 percent reduction in data errors compared with the legacy CCR system. And a year ago, only 29 percent of contractors' representations and certifications were up to date in the ORCA system. Under SAM, it's nearly 100 percent, Page said.

"That's a dramatic improvement for federal acquisition," he said. "It really allows contracting officers to have a lot more confidence in the acquisition system writ-large. That's a very big deal."

Page said in order to remold SAM into a system that's more functional and responsive, GSA changed its approach to rely more heavily on acceptance testing with end users across the federal and contractor community.

"We haven't always been top-shelf in that department," he said. "A lot of work has gone into bringing federal users, and, for the first time, non-federal users into the user acceptance testing regime. We serve tens of thousands of federal contracting and program officers, but there are 500,000 users registered in the system, everyone from small grantees to very large corporations. Getting each of those user experiences right is a non-trivial task, and understanding their needs is an important thing for us in our path forward."

The path forward involves a course correction for GSA, based on some of the hard lessons it learned from SAM.

The agency decided it shouldn't continue to build features onto a platform that appeared to be inherently not secure, not adaptable and not scalable enough to keep pace with a changing regulatory environment. So it intends to move away from the proprietary, system-centric approach and into an integrated, app-driven environment of common services for managing data across the entire federal acquisition lifecycle.

The future Integrated Award Environment (IAE) will be based on an open architecture.

"Thinking about this, we asked ourselves, 'Do we really need one system, or do we need a very thoughtful set of data management principles and a functional understanding of what it is we do?'" Page said. "Would we be better off thinking of what we do as a collection of web services? What's in the way of us thinking about a world of [application programming interfaces]? What's in the way of us building on a common platform of services, probably cloud-based, that give us room to grow and expand and track cutting-edge commercial capabilities in cutting cost and doing data analytics?"

Open to all developers

Ultimately, GSA decided there is nothing in the way of those ideas. So, it's moving ahead with plans to open up not just the broad architecture of its acquisition management systems, but also every single line of source code that's written for the project, whether the coder is a government employee or a contractor.