Senate bill looks to chop through red tape in procurement

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The bipartisan legislation aims to both expand access to special acquisition authorities and give new, innovative contractors more opportunities to work with the government.

Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have a new, bipartisan proposal they say would make procurement easier for both federal acquisition staff and contractors buying and selling technology.

The Federal Improvement in Technology — or FIT — Procurement Act was introduced March 22 and shared exclusively with Nextgov/FCW by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, of which Peters is the chair. 

“My legislation will guarantee that the best and most innovative businesses, including new and small businesses, can compete for federal contracts so that the federal government can keep pace and stay on the cutting edge as it serves the American people,” Peters said in a statement.

The bill would mandate updates to procurement rules and programs in the name of eliminating restrictive requirements and expand procurement options that let agencies move quickly, according to the senators. It’s also meant to open up opportunities for businesses entering the federal marketplace.

“I am proud to work alongside Sen. Peters to introduce this bipartisan legislation to reduce barriers hindering government access to the best technologies at lower costs,” Cruz said in a statement.

The senators pointed to concerns about decreasing numbers of businesses working with the government for why the legislation is needed.

Part of their proposed solution is meant to equip agencies with the authority to make advance payments to buy cloud computing, data center solutions and other tech bought on a subscription or tenancy basis. 

Government buyers have struggled to be able to pay in advance for cloud, as is typical in the commercial sector, because of how current government requirements are interpreted, according to a HSGAC aide.

The bill would also make a special procurement authority outside the FAR, called the commercial solutions opening authority, permanent for GSA and DHS, according to the HSGAC aide. 

Right now the authority, meant to allow agencies to buy innovative tech using more flexible procedures, is set to sunset in coming years. The bill would also give OMB the authority to give this flexibility to more agencies.

The proposal would double the simplified acquisition threshold — the limit of the anticipated value of a contract under which government officials can use simplified procurement procedures — from $250,000 to $500,000.

The bill also has language meant to expand how companies can show their past performance as they’re competing for government contracts by requiring guidance for agencies to consider non-federal work as a past reference, said the HSGAC aide — something that could be especially useful for tech that the government hasn’t bought yet, for example, or businesses not in the federal marketplace.

Another part of the bill directs government buyers using the General Services Administration’s multiple award schedule program to take a “best value” approach — as opposed to prioritizing lowest cost — when awarding acquisitions, by bringing the program in line with other parts of the FAR, per the HSGAC aide.

The proposal also includes a series of requirements for updates to the Federal Acquisition Institute to train federal buyers on tech like artificial intelligence and how to buy it, as well as changes to how that training is funded.

Finally, a provision in the bill aims to push the government to use its purchasing power to incentivize employee stock ownership programs. 

The motivation behind the proposal includes concerns about the length of time it can take for the government to purchase technology, said David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, a federal services industry trade group that has issued its support for the bill.

The government is also still adapting to a shift in where new and innovative tech is developed, said Berteau. Before, new technology was generally first developed for the government itself. Now, the government often has to purchase innovative tech being developed first outside the government context in the commercial sector.

The bill has the support of the Information Technology Industry Council tech trade group, in addition to PSC.

“This legislation will provide the U.S. government with much-needed flexibility when purchasing cloud computing, data center solutions and services, and other cutting-edge technologies,” said Megan Petersen, vice president of public sector policy and counsel at ITI in a statement, noting that the proposal “addresses many of the longstanding challenges faced by the U.S. government when purchasing commercial information technology.”

However, “laws generally don’t self-implement,” said Berteau, saying that if passed, parts of the law would require new regulations and procedures. The administration has many contracting-related rules and regulations already in various stages of implementation, he said, “so the system is pretty clogged up.”

“Legislation alone is really important, but it’s not sufficient,” he noted.

Peters is also backing another recently introduced, contracting-focused proposal alongside Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., that would require a new pilot program across at least four agencies to study the use of outcome metrics in contracting. And earlier this year, the senator backed a proposal meant to simplify solicitation and awards processes in contracting.