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A Sole Source Contract for Social Networking?!?

I'm attempting to crosspost this from my WordPress blog, but am not sure how it will come out. If it looks like garbage, please visit http://tericee.wordpress.com

Something has been bugging me all day. And it has to do with the Navy's recent Notice of Intent to award a sole source contract for the development of a social network. I heard about it this morning in a tweet from @JimmySky: "DoD Sole Sources award of a US Navy Social Network development?!?"

Having been in the Air Force for 20 years, this is something I know a bit about -- especially since the first ten years of my career were spent as an acquisition officer. Often, a government agency will use a sole source when an item is hard to find (e.g., satellites) or has standardized on a single brand of product to reduce training and maintenance costs (e.g., Microsoft Office). But this is the U.S. government, who is supposed to treat all vendors fairly and equally. So the Federal Acquisition Regulation (aka, the FAR) has specific guidelines for when a sole source contract is justified.

Here's what the FAR says:

When the supplies or services required by the agency are available from only one responsible source, or, for DoD, NASA, and the Coast Guard, from only one or a limited number of responsible sources, and no other type of supplies or services will satisfy agency requirements, full and open competition need not be provided for.

Let us consider: could there be only one responsible source for the development of a social network? No sane person could think so. Social networking is only the hottest thing on the planet. New tools are popping up left and right.

(i) Supplies or services may be considered to be available from only one source if the source has submitted an unsolicited research proposal that—

(A) Demonstrates a unique and innovative concept (see definition at 2.101), or, demonstrates a unique capability of the source to provide the particular research services proposed;

(B) Offers a concept or services not otherwise available to the Government; and

(C) Does not resemble the substance of a pending competitive acquisition. (See 10 U.S.C. 2304(d)(1)(A) and 41 U.S.C. 253(d)(1)(A).)

Could Red Rover Technologies possibly offer a social networking tool that is so unique and innovative that they deserve to escape full and open competition? If so, I think somebody would have twittered about them by now. But heck, they've barely even twittered about themselves. There is a grand total of three tweets from @RedRoverHQ.

(ii) Supplies may be deemed to be available only from the original source in the case of a follow-on contract for the continued development or production of a major system or highly specialized equipment, including major components thereof, when it is likely that award to any other source would result in—

(A) Substantial duplication of cost to the Government that is not expected to be recovered through competition; or

(B) Unacceptable delays in fulfilling the agency’s requirements. (See 10 U.S.C. 2304(d)(1)(B) or 41 U.S.C. 253 (d)(1)(B).)

Do you suppose that Red Rover Technologies has highly specialized equipment that no other social networking offeror could possibly have? If so, they'd have to have a specialized facility, don't you think? Perhaps we should check out their address (which we can find in the FedBizOpps listing). I googled it, and found that it's not an office building, but an apartment building. Not terribly inspiring digs for a government contractor.

Use of this authority may be appropriate in situations such as the following:

(1) When there is a reasonable basis to conclude that the agency’s minimum needs can only be satisfied by—

(i) Unique supplies or services available from only one source or only one supplier with unique capabilities; or

(ii) For DoD, NASA, and the Coast Guard, unique supplies or services available from only one or a limited number of sources or from only one or a limited number of suppliers with unique capabilities.

(2) The existence of limited rights in data, patent rights, copyrights, or secret processes; the control of basic raw material; or similar circumstances, make the supplies and services available from only one source (however, the mere existence of such rights or circumstances does not in and of itself justify the use of these authorities) (see Part 27).

Perhaps Red Rover Technologies has a patent, copyright, or secret process that the Navy needs for their social network. Or not. I checked their blog and found CEO Kevin Prentiss had written, "...the fact is we are a very small and fairly unknown company with a great set of ideas. It would be easy for any other established software company, with the appropriate institutional relationships or contracts, to see our product and incorporate its features into their product... We do not have the time as a company to invest in either learning about the [patent] process or completing the process - either one would prevent us from actually building the software. We also do not have time in the marketplace. Step two in the process is a mediated peer review of the patent filing - at the current rate of change I feel like taking the time to play by these rules would make the outcome moot."

Application for brand name descriptions. An acquisition that uses a brand name description or other purchase description to specify a particular brand name, product, or feature of a product, peculiar to one manufacturer does not provide for full and open competition regardless of the number of sources solicited. It shall be justified and approved in accordance with FAR 6.303 and 6.304. The justification should indicate that the use of such descriptions in the acquisition is essential to the Government’s requirements, thereby precluding consideration of a product manufactured by another company.

Interestingly, this company doesn't have a corporate website (that I can find). What they do have is rr.redroverhq.com, which is "is a directory of student interests." The purpose of the site is purportedly to connect students and build community. I'm thinking there are few DOZEN other companies that believe they can offer the same capability.

Does Red Rover Technologies truly offer a capability or service that precludes consideration of their competition?

I doubt it.

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15 Comments

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Profile Photo Sterling Whitehead

Someone, go for a PROTEST. (My least favorite seven-level word applies perfectly here).

I'm in Navy acquisitions, I often work with sole sourcing, and I'm a social media freak, so have at least an idea of what I'm talking about here.

The Navy needs a top-notch social networking system, and lots of companies do this, so full and open competition needs to be allowed.

I hear the chorus now: "Oh, but we have security issues!"

Well other companies can do that too.

GO COMPETITION!

Profile Photo Andrea Baker

The problem is, when it hits fedbizopps or input, its almost too late to do anything about it. Especially if it mentions SOLE-SOURCE. Usually contracts are written for someone specific and its that contractor's job to lose it.

However, that being said, I am skeptical that from what I read, know, and you posted that red rover can deliver.

Profile Photo Teri Centner

Andrea, I agree with you.

But the Devil's Advocate in me is balking. Officially, this was the Navy's notification to the world that they wanted to go sole source unless they heard otherwise from vendors. Does part of the blame then lay with companies who didn't add themselves to the interested vendor list?

Profile Photo Jaime Gracia

Seems pretty ridiculous to sole source this requirement. My firm offers many of the services outlined in the PWS, but Red Rover obviously did a marvelous job of convincing the Navy that their capabilities are unique. Further, the Liberty program also does not seem to have sophisticated knowledge of the market, so market research was either bypassed or conducted poorly. I hope this is not a trend for DoD in this emerging and dynamic market.

Profile Photo Teri Centner

Jaime, I agree that it seems they did zero market research. I'm not even sure they consulted with the Navy's social media guru, OR their own Navy CIO, who knows a little something about social media.

Profile Photo Teri Centner

Sterling, I'm sorry to say I don't know of a plugin. I just view my post in HTML from my WP dashboard, copy all, then paste into the HTML tab of my GovLoop blog. It would be nice if GovLoop/Ning allowed us to import blog entries via RSS like Facebook does. But I haven't heard of that being an option.

Profile Photo Matthew Potter

Why does the Navy need to build their own proprietary social network? Is it because they want it to reside on the secure side of their network. Couldn't they just build a Ning site like Govloop? That would be fairly easy and would at least jump start the process.

I also don't think that Red Rover Technologies is responsible for RedRoverHQ as that is developed by a company called Swift Kick (http://www.swiftkickonline.com/aboutsk.html),

Profile Photo Teri Centner

Matthew, Red Rover = Swift Kick >> http://www.swiftkickonline.com/technology.html
I agree that there is no call for the Navy to build their own proprietary social network. Or even a non-proprietary one, like Ning. As I mentioned in my follow-up post, just because they build something doesn't mean people will join. (Google Buzz isn't as popular as Google thought it woud be, USAA's "What's On Your Mind" failed. I'm sure there are more that I don't know about.) If they want to see what you Naval officers and enlisted members are up to, they should be able to find them with their Facebook fan page.

If they need something that's behind the FOUO firewall, there are already options available, like MilBook. And there are already Navy people using it. Why spend new money building a "pilot" when there are other networks that have already been joined by their target demographic?

Profile Photo Teri Centner

Sterling, I hope Navy does go with Milbook! It makes so much sense. (Or just leverage the Navy PA folks and their Facebook fan page.)

BTW, I think MilBook is already open to all DoD. I got on there today just to look around and there are members from all the Services, both reserve and active duty. Also gov't civilians and what not.