Five vendors lodge agency-level protests against ECS II

The National Institutes of Health expects to rule soon on five agency-level protests from unsuccessful bidders on the $2 billion Electronic Computer Store II procurement. The vendors Severn Companies Inc. Sytel Inc. SMAC Data Systems Friendship Computer and Native American Sales would not comment on their complaints. But sources familiar with the filings said the companies questioned NIH's methodology for evaluating the more than 70 proposals.

In September NIH awarded contracts to 45 companies who are competing for business governmentwide through the ECS II program. The protesters "mostly...are complaining about the technical evaluation they have received " said Patrick Williams deputy director of NIH's Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment Center (NITAAC).

Williams said the agency would have decisions on the protests "within the next week or so.""It's not so much a protest as consideration on some of the evaluation points " said George Haro East Coast regional director with Native American Sales adding that he could not discuss any other details about the case. "We didn't feel they took into consideration certain issues."

Basis for Judging

According to a copy of the evaluation criteria posted on NIH's World Wide Web site the agency judged vendors based on - in order of importance - management technical capabilities and price.

Thomas McGovern a partner with the law firm Hogan and Hartson Washington D.C. said losing bidders are perhaps more likely to file protests in procurements where so many contracts were awarded because the agency might be willing to settle with them. "If the agency is going to award 45 contracts why not 46 or 47?" he added. "It would be easier to give them a contract that doesn't obligate them to place any orders rather than fight a protest."

Protests such as these could become more common as vendors test new federal procurement rules that give agencies broader discretion to decide how many vendors to consider in a competition said Alex Tomaszczuk an attorney with Shaw Pittman Potts and Trowbridge McLean Va.

"The government simply cannot as a practical matter administer 70 different contracts and they have to make some trade-offs between efficiency and fairness " he said.

Elmer Sembly a program analyst with NIH said there has been "significant activity" on ECS II since it was awarded in September although he did not have firm numbers available. But the agency has had some trouble getting the contracts rolling particularly the electronic commerce features of the program.

Just after the contracts were awarded for example NIH suspended its requirements that vendors enable online ordering because the agency had not finished the front end to its purchasing system. Williams said NITAAC learned from its internal computer staff that its requirements for the user interface were "very complicated" and "couldn't be easily met."

NIH now expects to offer online ordering within four months Williams said.

Furthermore a number of vendors have not yet posted Web pages containing their ECS II catalogs and ordering information despite a contract requirement that they have this information ready within 15 days after award. Williams said the vendors were technically in breach of contract because of this but NIH had not sanctioned them.

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