With the release of a final RFP on July 17, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) entered the last stretch of lengthy process to decide whether federal campsites can be booked the way hotels are -- on sites like Expedia and Orbitz.
Aiming to modernize the aging campsite booking platform Recreation.gov, officials unveiled an RFP that could open booking commissions to third-party vendors. Wording allows for an application programming interface (API) to, at a minimum, channel campsite reservation updates and availability to app makers. However, what civic tech and recreation groups have also lobbied for is a guarantee to receive a portion of the commissions from campsite bookings via an API — a guarantee the final RFP neither promises nor prohibits.
In 2013, as part of its current 10-year contract with USDA, the ACTIVE Network was paid $14.5 million by the federal government for its entire suite of services — which also include call center operations and on-site booking management.
Organized under the banner of Access Land, companies and non-profits like the Sierra Club, Code for America, REI and the campsite booking startup Hipcamp have feared a winning vendor could gain a monopoly on those campsite revenues if they’re opposed to commissions. As it stands now, it will be a waiting game until the USDA picks from a run of proposals due Sept. 17.
National Park Service Program Manager Rick DeLappe spoke to Government Technology about the RFP, next steps and the participation of the White House’s U.S. Digital Services in the undertaking.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Government Technology: I know using an API was a big ask of civic tech advocates during the RFP process, how was the wording crafted to allow for such a technology?
National Park Service Program Manager Rick DeLappe: Well we worked with a couple folks from U.S. Digital Services and one from the 18F program to find a way to craft [the RFP’s] language so that the government wasn’t specifying a technological solution, but rather, an outcome. And you know the API is definitely the way that outcome is achieved today. But you also know how technology changes, and over the life of a contract you want to be able to stay abreast of that. I think that’s what caught people off guard and that’s why the language was a little bit vague there. But the intent is to have the data open and shareable through a tool like an API — or something that’s most likely an API — to generate the same outcomes so third parties can interact with our data in a live environment and display that data and innovate with it, or do with it as they please.
GT: With the final revision, does it require or highly suggest that third-party commissions be allowed for campsite reservation transactions?
DeLappe: It does not specifically require that commissions are allowed for third-party transactions, but you have to look at the broader picture first, because building this kind of contract, the prime contractor is responsible to build a significant infrastructure, things like security, secure financial processing, customer service, centralized business reporting and staffing for adequate call-center services, and operational tools and support for hundreds of field locations. So there’s a big investment before we even get into providing online reservation services. And the way that company is then allowed to receive a return on that investment is through transactions processing [fees]. The way this contract is set up, we do not get any appropriated funds to develop this system. It’s all paid through recreation fees that are generated through the system. So each time the contractor [processes] a reservation, they're able to receive a commission on that reservation. What we’ve tried to do is build into the requirements a marketing section that basically has certain goal and objectives.
For the contractor to achieve those objectives, there are numerous ways they can go about doing it. That would include reaching out to third parties and coming up with various agreements and arrangements that would allow third parties to reach underrepresented audiences, and find ways to promote underutilized facilities and actives that are available to Recreation.gov. But we do expect the market to drive those opportunities for the third parties to demonstrate their value to achieve those marketing goals of the program.
GT: Assuming two proposals came in, with all services generally being equal except one vendor allowed for third-party commissions and another did not, would the vendor who supported to third-party commissions be favored above the other?
DeLappe: I really couldn’t say right now; the evaluation criteria are in the contract and I’m not at liberty to give a personal speculation on a scenario like that.
GT: Going forward, how soon in the RFP timeline do you expect to have a decision on who’s awarded the contract and how it will be rolled out?
So we released the RFP on July 17 and, as per the instructions, the proposals are due back by Sept. 17. Contractors have opportunities to engage by submitting written questions — to which we’ll answer those in writing. And they also have an opportunity to meet with us in person to discuss any of the proprietary solutions they wouldn’t want to share publicly during the proposal preparation period. When those proposals are received, in all honesty, the milestones for evaluating proposals and doing all the subsequent regulatory actions are hard to estimate. We do have a schedule for milestones and it’s posted, but honestly it’s hard to maintain [that schedule] because you never know what circumstances are going to come up. Sometimes it’s shorter sometimes it’s longer, but it usually leans toward the longer. When you start to get into decisions on a contract of this magnitude, there are a lot of internal reviews that go on. There are various stages of evaluation, including having live presentations about proposed solutions and that kind of thing
GT: Looking at the feedback from the tech community and the U.S. Digital Services (USDS) agency, has this input changed how you might approach technology solutions in the future?
DeLappe: I can’t really speak for other agencies because this approach of using the USDS Playbook as a guide and incorporating it into the RFP is so new. According to the USDS, we’re one of the first programs to do so. It just hasn’t been out there that long. But I can tell you that for us that our association with USDS has been great. They’ve been a tremendous help in crafting a next-generation kind of contract and providing us with some expertise where we really needed some assistance. I can tell you that I’ve been working with the U.S. Forest Service internally and they’re very supportive of this. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you started to see more of these kinds of projects utilizing the playbook as a template and a starting point. But again, there are a lot of procurement officials throughout the government and they kind of guide the process.
GT: Are there any innovative ways you’ve worked to improve the RFP so it’s more sustainable with the latest tech?
DeLappe: Just as a little background, these types of projects are all funded on a commission basis, like per transaction. The contractors bear all the risk up front to develop a system and there’s return on that until we “flip the switch” and they start making reservations. So all the upfront risk sits on the contractor, and then you have a contract in place that may or may not be able to evolve with technology over time, and may or may not have funding for redevelopment when something big, new and exciting comes out.
So what we’ve done is incorporate a Technology Development Investment Fund that allows us to share the risk with the contractor up front by awarding commissions throughout the development cycle before they actually start making reservations. But of course they’ll have to achieve certain milestone before they get those [commissions]. That’s one thing we’ve done to kind of broaden the competition and make this available to more [vendors]. Then the second thing is that we’ll continue to build that fund throughout the life of the contract so that when something new that we’ve never anticipated comes up — and was not part of our original intentions — we can negotiate technological improvements that keep us up to speed with modern technology expectations. An example of this is the last time we awarded this contract, nobody had a smartphone, nobody was thinking about mobile apps and how to make a reservation on your phone. Over time, those kinds of things are going to happen, and we want to be able to be agile and respond to those. We want to keep the system up to date.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.