Look for innovations to help fix several procurement problems.
Because of federal procurement reforms, more agencies use governmentwide acquisition contracts. E-procurement has simplified federal information technology buys. Two major contracts, known as Alliant, promise to bring even greater changes to federal contracting.
But as some procurement officials and business owners can attest, bigger is not always better. Consolidation and centralization can produce as many watered-down solutions as winners, and no-bid, no-competition contracts, open only to preferred vendors, threaten to shut out innovative and specialized midsize companies.
Too small to bid for prime contracts but too large to qualify for small-business set-asides, midsize companies complain that agencies are squeezing them out of federal contracting opportunities. Meanwhile, procurement officials say they are not sure that the General Services Administration’s Contractor Team Agreements and its planned Alliant vehicles will end that complaint.
Based on our discussions with industry experts, here is a list of some of the hot spots in federal procurement.
1. GSA streamlines and consolidates with e-procurement and Alliant.
Despite having more than 10,000 contract holders on GSA schedule contracts, the agency has streamlined its e-procurement program and eased the administrative burden on GSA employees. “GSA could be the only agency that allows a contractor to respond to [a request for proposals], modify an existing contract and bid [request for quotations] work electronically,” said Courtney Fairchild, president of Global Services, a market research and business intelligence company.
GSA has also used Advantage, its online shopping and ordering system, to simplify the procurement process for federal agencies. But industry experts say they want GSA to find better ways of sharing aggregate information about how agencies spend their procurement dollars.
“Our systems are not great at gathering that data, but we are now using a combination of GSA Advantage tools and e-Buy to pull [together] the spending analysis data,” said Jim Williams, commissioner of the new Federal Acquisition Service. FAS will oversee all GSA acquisition programs, including Alliant.
To develop the Alliant and Alliant Small Business contracts, GSA is working with the Office of Management and Budget to comply with the federal enterprise architecture. As part of an effort to standardize how government does business, the architecture provides common language to describe common functions.
That architecture sets the stage for smart buying through strategic sourcing, Williams said, referring to the practice of using preferred vendors with prenegotiated contracts to supply products and services that agencies routinely use.
“We’re trying to make Alliant a flexible vehicle, but we’re also looking at ordering procedures to make sure that contractors reuse solutions that agencies have already purchased so we can take advantage of work we’ve already paid for,” said David Drabkin, director of acquisition operations at FAS.
2. Agencies reassess lengths and terms of contracts.
No one doubts the competitiveness of large procurements such as the Justice Department’s IT Support Services (ITSS) 3 and the Internal Revenue Service’s Total Information Processing Support Services (TIPSS) 3.
But some critics say ITSS-3’s seven-year contract period is too long. “It shuts out all but the prequalified,” said Mike Williams, executive vice president of business development at Apogen Technologies. ITSS-3 and similar contracts “are so large that there is no spending outside of that contract.”
Such contracts might be a more efficient way of doing business, but they reduce competition, he added.
Williams said he would like to see OMB’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy recommend that contractors be able to challenge task-order awards of $5 million or more.
3. Midtier companies continue to feel the squeeze.
The Homeland Security Department’s $45 billion Enterprise Acquisition Gateway for Leading Edge solutions program and the $50 billion GSA Alliant contracts have unrestricted tracks for open bidding by large contractors and restricted tracks for small-business set-asides.
Small businesses get help with a dedicated procurement track. But the structure could lock out midsize companies reporting more than $21 million in annual revenue, some industry officials say. That’s the revenue ceiling the North American Industry Classification System uses to define a small business.
“They are also too small to offer the broad resources of the large prime contractors,” said Mike Peak, corporate vice president for contracts at Apogen.
The ceiling excludes midtier companies “or forces them to work for the General Dynamics, Lockheed Martins and Northrop Grummans of the world,” Peak added.
Federal procurement analysts agree that large contractors control access. “If you want to do business with a government agency and you are a small or midsize firm, you are at the mercy of large contractors,” said Paul Brubaker, chief executive officer of consulting firm Procentrix.
Small businesses are hurt in other ways, said another industry expert who asked not to be named because of his potential involvement in new procurement opportunities. Sometimes when a Small Business Administration 8(a) company outgrows its small-business status, prime contractors drop the company in favor of another 8(a) company.
“There is preferential treatment in contracting, and the cusp of the small to midsize range of $22 million to $23 million is a tough spot to be in,” the expert said.
GSA’s new Alliant program, however, is expected to open at least one door to midsize companies by eliminating the dollar threshold when GSA requests past-performance information for evaluations.
“We won’t put as much merit in the size of the opportunity a company had as in how well they performed,” said a GSA official speaking on background.
4. ANCs might be left in the cold.
Under the SBA 8(a) program, tribal and Alaskan Native Corporation-owned businesses can receive sole-source contracts without protest, regardless of the dollar amount. All other 8(a) firms can only get contracts without competition or protest when they are valued at no more than $3 million.
That procurement policy is controversial because prime contractors create strategic alliances with ANCs to win no-bid, no-protest contracts. ANCs, on the other hand, need prime contractors to win a piece of large contracts.
“The 8(a) and service-disabled veterans are angry that ANCs get more benefits,” said Guy Timberlake, CEO of the American Small Business Coalition, which advocates a level playing field for businesses competing for government contracts.
“They can practically write their own statements of work,” Timberlake said. ANCs might lose some of those privileges if Congress decides to address the issue, he added.
Nevertheless, some experts worry that the squeeze on non-ANC small businesses could reduce competition unfairly.
“The majority of tasks that wind up in contract vehicles have been premarketed and sold by one particular company,” Brubaker said. “They want to give the illusion of competition when actually there’s very little chance that a task order will go to anybody other than the company that marketed it to the government in the first place.”
Gerber is a freelance writer in Kingston, N.Y. She can be reached at Chergerber@cs.com.
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