OMB mulls new limits

Six months after agencies were freed from restrictive federal buying rules government officials and vendors are seeking fresh guidelines for how to manage and make purchases from new multiple-agency information technology contracts.

Buyers and sellers say they want to preserve the choices agencies now have to obtain hardware software and services from competing governmentwide contracts. But they also are beginning to fear that unfettered competition could lead to unfair or mismanaged deals.

"Billions of dollars are being moved through these indefinite-delivery indefinite-quantity contracts for services and hardware " said Bert Concklin executive director of the Professional Services Council. "It's very wise to make sure we're doing that in a way that is constructive."

Although specific concerns vary according to their point of view policy-makers procurement executives and vendors worry that without some informal guidelines the following scenarios may unfold:

* Agencies competing for business with each other may make it too easy for buyers to direct awards to selected vendors without giving other suppliers a chance to compete.

* Small companies could lose business opportunities because buyers will fill their requirements through large task-order contracts instead of competing small jobs on the open market.

* Buyers could end up with large systems that do not work because they built them piece by piece without paying enough attention to how the components would be integrated.

* The government may lose its ability to obtain discounts because it will be harder for vendors selling from multiple open-ended contracts to project their revenues.

"Any competitive system takes place within a structure of rules that set limits on what competitors are allowed to do to each other " said Steven Kelman administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

Late last month Kelman convened a meeting of executives in charge of the largest governmentwide IT service contracts including the General Services Administration schedule and asked them to craft a set of informal rules they would use to govern how they compete with each other.

"Certainly there ought to be some guidelines " as long as they are flexible said Leamon Lee associate director for administration with the National Institutes of Health. NIH runs two multiple-agency task-order programs: ImageWorld and Chief Information Officer Solutions and Partners.

The Justice Department is studying how it can ensure that its buyers maintain competition among the multiple vendors from which it can choose. NASA is taking a complementary tack. As part of its new Consolidated Contracting Initiative which aims to coordinate procurement among the agency's various centers and laboratories NASA this month plans to give contracting officers a set of criteria they can use to judge which acquisition vehicles to use for a given purchase said procurement analyst Ron Crider.

Other initiatives are under way too. The Office of Management and Budget is mulling over whether the government should do anything to guarantee that vendors continue to give agencies the best prices. And some trade associations are urging the government to set fresh parameters for awards to small businesses.

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