Product buying criteria a continuing source of concern

In theory, the purchase of commercial products should be straightforward. With the NetCents-2 products contracts, as with similar vehicles across government, buyers are encouraged to use the lowest price, technically acceptable (LPTA) criteria. Unfortunately, while the validity of that approach is not in question, it is not as simple to apply as it might seem.

LPTA is one of two ways in which NetCents-2 purchases will be decided. The other is a trade-off methodology that is seen as the best path for complex awards in which the bidder’s technical competence and ability can outweigh cost as a factor.

According to NetCents-2 contract guidelines, LTPA should be used “whenever a minimum acceptable level of technical ability and/or quality can be established, and clearly described, to meet the U.S. government’s requirements,” such as those that are closely related to commercially available supplies or services.

The problem is deciding what constitutes technical acceptability. When it comes to commercial products, such decisions will be based on measurable terms such as processor speed, memory size, hard drive size, standards supported and so on, and the difference between the best products along these lines is often small. Where does a buyer draw the line?

LPTA has both pros and cons for the Air Force, said Ashley Bergander, manager for federal information solutions at Deltek, Inc. It will certainly save them money at the end of the day, but it also could end up stunting technical advancement, if performance is sacrificed for price.

“LPTA is going to be providing for more of a basic product, and it’s not really allowing for something that may be more beneficial for Air Force users down the line,” she said. “Everybody will be trying to make the bare minimum, and that’s a huge negative for this.”

The dividing line, she said, comes with whatever it is that the government deems to be technically acceptable for each of the tasks it puts out for bid, and that “does put the burden on the government to make sure they have a good idea of what is technically acceptable.”

How a contracting officer defines technically acceptable will be the critical issue, agreed John Hanifan, vice president and general manager for DOD and VA (West) at Iron Bow Technologies.

Some buyers might take a hardware specification and say, “If you meet this, then the offer is technically acceptable.” Others, he said, might take a different approach, such as saying the solution simply needs to work. “And if they don’t write it correctly, then it’s very difficult to prove that you aren’t technically acceptable and lowest price,” Hanifan said.

Another potential problem is that there are 25 vendors on the products contract, he said, so potentially they will have to evaluate 25 bids at a time, and they won’t have the time or bandwidth to do that properly.

Bergander thinks there could be a lot of protests launched over what is or is not technically acceptable, and how well everyone is versed in the requirements.

“If there’s one little thing that enables [bidders] to get in there, then it’s very easy for them to launch a lot of protests against why certain people weren’t picked for awards,” she said. “It seems a very grey area and pretty much no-one likes it, and I would hope for a better definition of LPTA down the road.”