Buzz of the Week: GWACs on the downswing

In recent years, it was difficult to remember how federal agencies managed to buy technology products and services without governmentwide acquisition contracts.

GWACs made it easy to do business because the sponsoring agency — such as the General Services Administration or National Institutes of Health — handled all the nitty-gritty work involved with running the competition and maintaining the contracts. Or so it seemed.

A report released last week by FedSources suggests that federal agencies are taking a more jaundiced view of GWACs. Between fiscal 2005 and 2007, the volume of GWAC business dropped nearly 30 percent, while spending on agency-run multiple-award contracts rose more than 40 percent.

Why the shift? Many contracting officers once believed that GWACs would relieve them of the cost and effort of managing their own contracts, but that is not necessarily the case, said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at FedSources.

The Government Accountability Office, various inspectors general and other watchdog groups have hammered home this point repeatedly in recent years. Agencies frequently award GWAC task orders without adequate competition and then fail to manage the performance of the work, frittering away whatever savings were realized by using the GWAC.

That concern certainly has played a large role in the loss of Defense Department spending through civilian GWACs. The DOD IG has documented case after case in which defense agencies took a laissez faire approach to task orders, relying too much on the GWAC contract office to provide oversight.
GSA’s current troubles with the Alliant contract certainly do not help matters.

It is understandable that contracting officers would rather avoid the management problems associated with GWACs, especially if the savings are not as dramatic as once perceived. However, such decisions avoid the larger question about the role of GWACs in the federal procurement environment. In what situations does it make sense for an agency to use a GWAC rather than running its own contract? What variables factor into that cost/benefit analysis?

The procurement community cannot afford — literally — to dodge these questions indefinitely.

THE BUZZ CONTENDERS

#2: Hardball politics
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez is ready to deal on funds needed to pay for the 2010 census. He told members of the House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Subcommittee that they should reduce funding for several Commerce programs to levels similar to those the Bush administration originally proposed.

The need for more money comes from Commerce’s recent decision not to use handheld computers to conduct follow-up interviews with people who don’t return the census forms they’ll get in the mail. The department now must hire and train more field workers and prepare to purchase paper forms that they previously hadn’t thought they’d need.

The real need didn’t stop some subcommittee members from apparently suspecting opportunism in the proposal to reduce funding for other programs. Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the panel chairman, suggested that the department request supplemental funding instead.

#3: Bidding wars for war gear
Anybody with a credit card can buy stolen U.S. military equipment — including some that should never be available to the public — from popular online resale sites including eBay and CraigsList, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Gregory Kutz, GAO’s managing director of forensic audits and special investigations, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee that during a yearlong investigation, GAO employees bought stolen and sensitive military gear through the sites, and the sellers shipped it all, no questions asked.

The hardware available through the sites has included parts for F-14 fighter jets, which could be useful to Iran; Army combat uniforms that could allow enemies to disguise themselves as U.S. soldiers; and night-vision systems with special military technology for differentiating between friendly and hostile personnel.

#4: 'A first-class guy'
The steady hand of Robert Burton at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy will be gone when Burton, OFPP’s deputy administrator since 2001, retires in July. In a career that includes more than 21 years as a senior acquisition attorney at the Defense Logistics Agency, Burton has been a stabilizing force during a period of frequent upheavals in the federal acquisition community. “A first-class guy,” said Larry Allen, president of the Coalition for Government Procurement. “This administration was fortunate that he was able to bridge the gap” between OFPP administrators several times since 2003.

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