Wednesday, March 14, 2007

In the End, It’s Always the Almonds and Whipped Cream

Proposals for upgrading phone lines, wireless networks and fire walls for the federal government are to be awarded this week.

Can you imagine the specification? Retro-fitting the IT of a single office building is a daunting job in this cyber age.

Networx The governmental moniker is Networx Universal and it’s a kind of cute misspelling, proving that even bureaucrats are hip and have a sense of humor. They’ll need it, as will the Congress when this thing goes off track. Proposals for upgrading phone lines, wireless networks and fire walls for the federal government are to be awarded this week.
Can you imagine the specification? Retro-fitting the IT of a single office building is a daunting job in this cyber age. The complexity of rewiring approximately 445,000 federally owned buildings with total floor space of over three billion square feet, as well as 57,000 leased buildings, comprising another 374 million square feet of floor space--all of it under one authority--simply boggles the mind.
Oh, and by the way, of those 2,606,903 folks behind the desks, don’t lose anyone’s speed-dial.
Way back in my earlier incarnation as a contractor, I learned something about specifications. Two things, actually;
  • That they were ‘historic’ documents, in the sense that everything that had ever gone wrong in the history of the game (whichever game it was) found its way into the spec.
  • Looked through carefully enough (particularly by $500/hr lawyers) every do and don’t had its corresponding wouldn’t and couldn’t hanging out somewhere in the fine print as a counterpoint.
Governmentcontract So, when I read that such industry big-hitters as AT&T, Verizon and Quest were preparing 10,000 page proposals for this latest $20 billion government contract, I just grinned.
Anyone who can’t squirm out of a hundred-page proposal spec just isn’t trying. A stroll down the winding lane of 10,000 pages isn’t even something that can be properly evaluated, much less enforced.
I’m trying to wrap my mind around the structure, the organizational enormity of the General Services Administration (GSA) attempting to evaluate three ten-thousand page bids and come up with a recommendation. 30,000 pages of ifs ands and buts. Man of La Mancha comes to mind:
    To dream the impossible dream
    To fight the unbeatable foe
    To bear with unbearable sorrow
    To run where the brave dare not go

All of the above, baby.
Because of its complex and opaque character, the GSA says awarding the Networx deal will be a multi-step process. Well, I guess.
  • Step One: (A) How much did AT&T, Verizon and Quest individually contribute to the Republicans in the past six years?; (B) How capable is each firm for a contract of this size? and (C) In which font were the individual proposals written and was it the required 12 point size?
  • Step Two: Do nothing until another scandal hits the front pages with sufficient impact to cover all tracks (be patient, this may take as long as a week).
  • Step Three: Ignore all proposals and award contract to largest contributor under Step One, (A).
Kim Hart writes in today’s Washington Post;
The contract is part of one of the most sweeping revamps of the federal government's technology infrastructure in two decades. The overhaul will touch nearly everything federal employees rely on, from BlackBerrys used by FBI agents to databases used by public schools.
Chertoffgonzales_1 Sweet. Now, everything that has gone to hell over the past four years, from Katrina to the entirety of Alberto Gonzales’s Justice Department, will finally have impenetrable cover. Mike Chertoff's Homeland Security, which was never able to find the FBI’s phone number, in a national emergency will now be connected to a high school in Roxbury, Vermont.
"Previous contracts focused on straight telecommunications -- phone lines, data lines. But Networx is putting together the next generation of high-end technology that the government will use for years," said Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president of the Professional Services Council, a government contracting trade organization. "Every large telecom company is counting on this."
You’ll notice the term ‘high-end’ technology—not high-speed or high-tech, but high-end. Last time I checked, the general meaning of high-end was 1) top of the line or 2) most expensive.
This is expected to be a ten-year deal. $20 billion to start, but expandable to $68 billion. That’s coded bureau-speak for $662 billion, tops and not a penny more or you lose the premium.
Fred Schobert is the GSA’s Director of Program Management and Technology, Office of Service Development. Fred occupies about three or four hundred of the three and a half billion square feet through which wires will be pulled and equipment installed. So he’s a man at risk.
I don’t know Fred, but he seems to be a no-bullshit guy. The first section of his August, 2004 Request for Proposals reads;
Networx - Understanding the Technical Specification, Section C of Draft RFP.
Which is pretty straightforward and a good start. RFP is Request For Proposals, but it unravels from there as I suppose it must. Even the sanest conversation over a quiet cup of coffee in Fred’s outer office is bound to bring up a slew of what-ifs and rather-thans. It’s a very short jump from there to off to the races.
Bureaucrat But enough poking of fun. The country runs on get-it-done men and women and it’s unfair (but great sport) to skewer them when their (appointed) agency newbies get caught between 2nd and 3rd. Which is not a poke at Republicans. They’ve been poked-at enough lately and are known to get testy-when-poked. Democrats are a fair-trade political party in this game and are just thirsting to get their head in the trough.
Bottom line, all of these companies and their people will try to do a workmanlike job bringing America up to standard, telecommunications-wise. From the guy who drills holes in office walls to the tech-head squaring away the latest technology, an honest day’s work is the standard.
There will be, however, way up on the top floor of whoever’s corporate headquarters represents the winner, an exec who just can’t keep his hands off the levers of the money-pump. It’s the nature of the breed. Up until award, every flavor of ice-cream is no-problem, and after award, the search begins for almonds and whipped cream.
Architect Mies van der Rohe used to say “God is in the details,” but every federal contractor knows He’s in the almonds and whipped cream.
Fortunately for the State Of The Union, Halliburton will be in Dubai.
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