Air Force leverages the power of mandatory use policy

The Air Force has a vested interested in getting as many Air Force buyers as possible to use the Network Centric Solutions contracts.

That is because the program was designed to promote the standardization and interoperability of the Air Force network infrastructure, while also ensuring compliance with both Air Force and Defense Department technical standards. So the more people use the program, the better it is for the Air Force.

That is the rationale behind making its use was made mandatory for all Air Force IT systems and networks.

Apart from several exceptions — such as the IT Professional Support and Engineering Services contract, and the acquisition of embedded software and systems — the NetCents-2 contracts “will be the mandatory source for all USAF units purchasing netcentric and IT products and solutions that fall under the scope of the contracts,” according to a May 2011 memo from the Air Force secretary’s office.

All “new and ongoing” Air Force appropriated fund acquisition efforts shall incorporate NetCents-2 into their acquisition strategy, the memo stated, and any waivers to that requirement can only be made by the Air Force chief information officer.

Mandatory use can, in fact, be a pretty useful tool, said Ashley Bergander, manager for federal information solutions at Deltek, Inc., a government market research company. Not only does it help enforce the standardization of the Air Force’s net-centric infrastructure, it provides a level of certainty for the companies that are on the contract.

“It makes for a more level playing field, and people know what they are getting in to with NetCents,” she said. “For contractors, they know that if they get on to the contracts then there likely will be business coming their way because the contract will be used. With other contracts that don’t have mandatory use, some users might purchase off them and others won’t.”

A key advantage of mandatory use it that it helps the Air Force CIO meet congressional mandates to closely track the service’s IT spend, said Robert Smothers, chief of the Logistics and Installation Systems Branch at Maxwell AFB-Gunter Annex, and the NetCents-2 program manager.

Another major benefit is that it helps to reduce support costs through leveraging the more than $24 billion in IT requirements that will be met through NetCents-2, thereby ensuring users get the best price.

“We think of this as the Wal-Mart effect,” Smothers said. “Also, as you can imagine, we reduce support costs through having fewer configurations to maintain.”

Additionally, he said, the Air Force can reduce procurement overhead and delivery times for IT products and services because the use of the IDIQ contracts in NetCents-2 allows customers to use task orders against pre-qualified vendors rather than running their own contracts. Likewise, local base contracting offers and programs managers save both time and money.

That said, with NetCents-1 there have been complaints from users that mandatory use limits them in what they can do in terms of getting the technology they need, and in keeping up with changes in technology. That is a legitimate concern, Bergander feels, and it could lead to some pushback on NetCents-2.

“ [Users] do have these goals they have to meet, and some will feel chained by this policy,” she said.

Smothers thinks this could be a case of apples and oranges. A large part of it may down to people looking at NetCents-1 and just the eight vendors that were on that, and therefore viewing mandatory use as a real limitation of choice. But, on NetCents-2, there are 25 vendors just for the products contract that was awarded in 2013, and 12 for the application services small business companion vehicle.

The trend of having a bigger pool of contractors will likely continue as the Air Force moves forward with other NetCents-2 contracts.

“And those vendors have the opportunity to team and partner with other vendors as they need to,” he said. “So, I don’t think in any way that the mandatory use policy lessens the capability of partner managers and contracting officers to get the technology and services they need.”