Following instructions from Congress to create a new online shopping system leveraging existing commercial practices, the General Services Administration (“GSA”), in coordination with the Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”), has released an implementation plan (“Plan”) to begin e-commerce purchases by 2019.  As discussed in a previous blog post, GSA’s Plan is a first step toward implementing Section 846 of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2018, which requires GSA to develop “e-commerce portals” – essentially online shopping sites – for commercially available off-the-shelf (“COTS”) item procurements.

Section 846 sets out three phases for the e-commerce program.  Phase I requires the development of a plan for implementing the commercial e-commerce portals program, including initial recommendations regarding “changes to, or exemptions from, [existing procurement] laws.”  Section 846(c)(1).  GSA’s announcement completes Phase I.  GSA will now proceed to Phase II, which will involve market analysis, “communications with potential e-commerce portal providers on technical considerations of how the portals function,” and consideration of impacts on other procurement programs.  Section 846(c)(2).  Significantly, at the conclusion of Phase II, GSA and OMB will be required to submit a report identifying “recommendations for any changes to, or exemptions from, laws necessary for effective implementation of this section,” as well as a report on “considerations pertaining to non-traditional Government contractors.”   Id.

GSA’s release of the Plan comes two months after it held a town hall to discuss options for the e-commerce program. The Plan emphasizes that this type of “stakeholder engagement . . . has deepened the knowledge of the commercial practices, the industry perspective, and the intersection of Federal acquisition laws and regulations.”  As GSA and OMB now move forward with Phase II of the program, they will likely again seek public input on their plans.

Possible Structure of e-Commerce Portals

GSA’s Plan identifies three potential types of e-commerce portals, each with different cost incentives and ordering structures.

  • E-Commerce Model:  Under this model, a vendor would use its existing online platform to sell its own proprietary or wholesale products to the government.  The vendor would be responsible for pricing and delivery.
  • E-Marketplace Model:  This model would create online marketplaces managed by a contractor, through which both proprietary products and the products of other vendors could be sold to the government.  Vendors would be responsible for fulfilling orders, although GSA held open the possibility that portal providers could be required in certain cases to fulfill orders.
  • E-Procurement Model:  This model calls for a contractor to provide an online marketplace – a so-called “portal of portals” – through which other vendors could then sell goods to the government.  The marketplace provider would not sell goods and would not be responsible for fulfilling orders.

GSA noted that under an E-Commerce model, competition may be “limited,” with “little to no horizontal price comparison.”  But under either an E-Marketplace or E-Procurement model, competition would increase.  An E-Marketplace model would promote “increased competition” by providing “access to both proprietary and third-party products.”  Meanwhile, an E-Procurement model would “allow[] for a larger supplier pool and horizontal price comparisons.”  GSA observed that the E-Procurement model contemplates “tiered subscription fees” that “generally increase as the volume of transactions on the platform increase,” although transaction fees could be capped.

GSA stated that it anticipates using an “appropriate mix” of these three models.  GSA also commented that it “anticipates a direct contractual relationship only with commercial e-commerce portal providers [and not with the suppliers that sell through the portal providers].”  At the same time, however, GSA stated that it “may consider” using an indefinite-delivery indefinite-quantity (“IDIQ”) type of contracting vehicle “that allows GSA to have a relationship with both a portal provider and suppliers that sell on the portal platform, if such strategy might generate greater efficiencies for products that are identified as suitable for the program.”  Observers should expect more information regarding the proposed contract structure of the commercial e-commerce portal program, as it is not clear from this brief reference how this proposal would align with current GSA practices.

Recommended Legislative Changes

In addition to setting out a Plan for e-commerce portals, GSA also issued an accompanying legislative proposal recommending that Congress make a variety of changes to help GSA and OMB implement the e-commerce mandate of Section 846.  Notably, GSA stated that its three-year timeline is contingent on Congress implementing these recommendations.

First, GSA proposed raising the micro-purchase threshold to $25,000 for purposes of the e-commerce portals program, an increase from the current thresholds of $5,000 for the Department of Defense and $10,000 for civilian agencies.  In theory, this proposed increase of the micro-purchase threshold to $25,000 is intended to promote commercial buying practices, as purchases beneath the micro-purchase threshold are exempt from many Government-specific requirements.

Second, GSA also proposed that Congress amend Section 846 to streamline certain statutory competition requirements.  Specifically, GSA proposed an amendment stating that procurements using Section 846 procedures would be deemed competitive, “so long as participation is open to all responsible sources and orders and contracts using these procedures result in the lowest overall cost alternative.”

Finally, GSA proposed that Congress amend the term “commercial e-commerce portal” in Section 846 to mean

[A] commercial solution providing for the purchase of commercial products aggregated, distributed, sold, or manufactured via an online portal.  The term does not include an online portal managed by the Government for, or predominantly for use by, Government agencies, unless such portal is designed for the purpose of accessing multiple other e-commerce portals, including commercial portals, via a single view for the purchase of commercial products.  (proposed amendment emphasized).

This revision appears to be aimed at broadening the definition of “commercial e-commerce portal” to encompass the “portal of portals” concept embodied by the E-Procurement model, discussed above.

Three-Year Plan for Phasing in e-Commerce Portals

GSA’s Plan sets out a three-year schedule for developing this new system.  Among other things, for Fiscal Year 2018 GSA plans to:

  • Conduct research and have meetings with stakeholders in industry and within government.
  • Determine what types of items would be “in-scope” for purchase on e-commerce portals.
  • Develop “options for an initial proof of concept.”

GSA’s effort to determine what items are “in-scope” is somewhat ambiguous.  It could be read to suggest that certain COTS items may be excluded from e-commerce portals, though it may also reflect GSA’s “phased approach for implementation” and the possibility of a product or category based phase-in.  For Fiscal Year 2019, GSA further plans to

  • Assess the impact of e-commerce portals on the Multiple Award Federal Supply Schedules, the National Supply System, small businesses, socioeconomic programs, and other preference programs.
  • Develop data ownership and cybersecurity rules.
  • Conduct an acquisition for an initial rollout of e-commerce portals.
  • Test the e-commerce systems with “a limited audience.”

Finally, in 2020, GSA plans to

  • Expand and scale rollout of the e-commerce systems.
  • Make final policy recommendations.
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Susan B. Cassidy

Ms. Cassidy represents clients in the defense, intelligence, and information technologies sectors.  She works with clients to navigate the complex rules and regulations that govern federal procurement and her practice includes both counseling and litigation components.  Ms. Cassidy conducts internal investigations for government…

Ms. Cassidy represents clients in the defense, intelligence, and information technologies sectors.  She works with clients to navigate the complex rules and regulations that govern federal procurement and her practice includes both counseling and litigation components.  Ms. Cassidy conducts internal investigations for government contractors and represents her clients before the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA), Inspectors General (IG), and the Department of Justice with regard to those investigations.  From 2008 to 2012, Ms. Cassidy served as in-house counsel at Northrop Grumman Corporation, one of the world’s largest defense contractors, supporting both defense and intelligence programs. Previously, Ms. Cassidy held an in-house position with Motorola Inc., leading a team of lawyers supporting sales of commercial communications products and services to US government defense and civilian agencies. Prior to going in-house, Ms. Cassidy was a litigation and government contracts partner in an international law firm headquartered in Washington, DC.

Photo of Jennifer Plitsch Jennifer Plitsch

Jennifer Plitsch is co-chair of the firm’s Government Contracts practice group. Her practice includes a wide range of contracting issues for large and small businesses in both defense and civilian contracting. Her practice involves advising clients on contract proposal, performance, and compliance questions…

Jennifer Plitsch is co-chair of the firm’s Government Contracts practice group. Her practice includes a wide range of contracting issues for large and small businesses in both defense and civilian contracting. Her practice involves advising clients on contract proposal, performance, and compliance questions as well as transactional and legislative issues. Her practice also includes bid protest and contract claims and appeals litigation before GAO, agency boards and the federal courts. Ms. Plitsch has particular expertise in advising clients in the pharmaceutical and biologics industry. She advises a range of pharmaceutical and biologics manufacturers on Federal Supply Schedule contracts, including the complex pricing requirements imposed on products under the Veterans Health Care Act, as well as research and development contracts and grants with various federal agencies. She also has significant experience advising on the requirements of various programs under which vaccine products and biodefense medical countermeasures are procured by the Government.

Photo of Michael Wagner Michael Wagner

Mike Wagner helps government contractors navigate high-stakes enforcement matters and complex regulatory regimes.

Combining deep regulatory knowledge with extensive investigations experience, Mr. Wagner works closely with contractors across a range of industries to achieve the efficient resolution of regulatory enforcement actions and government…

Mike Wagner helps government contractors navigate high-stakes enforcement matters and complex regulatory regimes.

Combining deep regulatory knowledge with extensive investigations experience, Mr. Wagner works closely with contractors across a range of industries to achieve the efficient resolution of regulatory enforcement actions and government investigations, including False Claims Act cases. He has particular expertise representing individuals and companies in suspension and debarment proceedings, and he has successfully resolved numerous such matters at both the agency and district court level. He also routinely conducts internal investigations of potential compliance issues and advises clients on voluntary and mandatory disclosures to federal agencies.

In his contract disputes and advisory work, Mr. Wagner helps government contractors resolve complex issues arising at all stages of the public procurement process. As lead counsel, he has successfully litigated disputes at the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals, and he regularly assists contractors in preparing and pursuing contract claims. In his counseling practice, Mr. Wagner advises clients on best practices for managing a host of compliance obligations, including domestic sourcing requirements under the Buy American Act and Trade Agreements Act, safeguarding and reporting requirements under cybersecurity regulations, and pricing obligations under the GSA Schedules program. And he routinely assists contractors in navigating issues and disputes that arise during negotiations over teaming agreements and subcontracts.