Agencies form a GWAC force
Custodians of governmentwide acquisition contracts overcome differences for greater good in contracting
The battle for control over governmentwide acquisition contracts encouraged several officials to meet for lunch recently, and by the time the check arrived, they were a newly combined force.
GWACs sell information technology products and services to agencies. They cover the gamut, from highly scientific technologies to general services for an everyday IT system. Four agencies host GWACs: the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, the General Services Administration and NASA.
Earlier this year, some program managers in charge of GWACs said they were concerned that GSA officials were subtly working to take over other contracts, including NIH’s Chief Information Officer Solutions and Partners (CIO-SP) GWAC. The third edition of the contract was up for recertification by the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.
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Joanne Woytek, program manager for NASA’s Solutions for an Enterprisewide Procurement GWAC, said she was worried that GSA, if successful, would go after her contract next. She posted her concerns on Facebook and on former OFPP administrator, Harvard University professor and Federal Computer Week columnist Steve Kelman's blog, "The Lectern."
Woytek's concerns blew up into a news story, which could easily have divided the various GWAC officials. But Mike O’Neill, GSA’s deputy director for GWAC programs, instead saw an opening. Hence, the lunch idea.
“The opportunity presented itself, and I took advantage of it," he said. "I wanted to get to know our so-called competitors and find ways to collaborate."
O'Neill and several other officials say joining forces simply makes sense.
As a result, they’re working together to offer a wider range of products and services that can meet almost any customer’s needs. The GWACs would let agency contracting offices spend more time on the mission-critical purchases and avoid the cost of hosting a contract.
“We don’t do this because we want business for the business,” said Woytek, who was at the lunch. “We think you should use us because we think it’s good for the government.”
GWAC officials said they hope their customers will believe in their message. “The idea of agencies awarding their own IT contracts should be passé,” said Diane Frasier, director of the NIH Office of Acquisition Management and Policy.
However, the GWACs still face stereotypes, and they have higher hoops to jump through than an everyday contract, such as a multiagency contract.
MACs and enterprisewide contracts are popping up throughout the federal government. But they don’t have the rigorous accountability and accreditation standards that GWACs must follow. GWAC program managers say MACs don’t have the credibility either.
GWACs must obtain approval from federal procurement officials, which should prove they're trustworthy. For NIH’s CIO-SP 3 GWAC, OFPP officials looked into its sales and operations. They talked to customers and companies about the GWAC, examining its usefulness. OFPP recertified CIO-SP 3 in July.
Nevertheless, some agencies want their own MAC. Officials often say they believe their agency’s needs are unique enough to warrant a separate contract.
That thinking has led the government to lose count of its contracts, experts say. The total number of MACs and enterprisewide contracts is unknown because the Federal Procurement Data System is not sufficient to identify them, said John Needham, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office.
GWACs have another image problem. Woytek said customers often question the fee an agency must pay for using the GWAC. People don’t understand why they pay it, even asking if they’re subsidizing a space shuttle, said Woytek, whose office is housed at NASA.
Even members of Congress question the fee. Steve Kempf, commissioner at GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service, told senators recently that the fee goes to update technology and pay bills because GWACs get no appropriations. “Old ideas hang around,” Woytek said.
Woytek said they now have to educate the rest of the market about GWACs’ usefulness. O’Neill said GSA’s feedback suggests that they get high marks and that GSA's Alliant GWAC is doing quite well. “If use is one of the strongest indicators, GWACs are well liked by our clients,” he said.
“I expect that we will collectively become the government leaders,” O’Neill added.
Over lunch, the GWACs' caretakers had formed a team brimming with confidence about the contracts' place in government procurement. And to seal the deal, everyone chipped in to pay the tab.