Feds, industry find GWACs to their liking

Earlier this month, I chaired two breakout sessions with Bob Dornan, senior vice president of Federal Sources Inc., at the Industry Advisory Council's annual government/

industry meeting in Richmond, Va. The sessions, called "GWACs: Reform or Regression," used interactive technology that allowed all participants to use a computer at their seats to vote on a survey regarding governmentwide acquisition contracts (GWACs) and to write their opinions of this contract vehicle. We explored issues such as task-order competition, post-award marketing costs, pricing for the government under GWACs and the impact of GWACs on small business.

The overall verdict on GWACs from participants in the two sessions was quite positive. Asked to list advantages and disadvantages of GWACs, government and industry participants listed more pluses than minuses. For the government, positive statements outpaced negative ones better than 2-to-1, while industry gave a small edge to positive over negative comments.

Asked to explain why government views GWACs more positively than industry, one industry representative noted that if they had been asked about traditional procurement approaches, views would have been overwhelmingly negative. A slight balance on the plus side was actually a vote of endorsement.

One of the government folks said the answer to my question was simple: "I'd rather be a hammer than a nail." GWACs, he argued, were an extraordinarily advantageous tool for the government.

On the important issue of post-award competition for task orders, industry participants decisively disagreed— by a vote of 25-6— with the statement, "There is not enough competition for individual task orders under GWACs." The vast majority of vendors stated they would not bid on a task order if a preferred vendor were listed— a practice recently prohibited in the Federal Acquisition Regulation. A significant number of vendors appeared to like the idea that agencies should be able to signal a favored vendor so they need not bother to bid.

Government participants also disagreed with the view that there was not enough competition for task orders, though by a less-decisive ratio of 5-to-9. In listing advantages of GWACs, a significant number of government participants listed post-award competition and its effect on keeping vendors on their toes.

One of the interesting features of the responses was the discussion about past performance and GWACs. Although a plurality of government participants believed there was no overall difference in vendor performance under GWACs compared with other contractual vehicles, far more believed vendor performance was, on average, better than traditional contracts because the streamlined features of GWACs make it easier for agencies to reward vendors with good performance and stop dealing with a bad performer.

"Because of shortened procurement lead time on task orders, the requirement does not have time to change as it used to when we took 18 to 24 months to make single awards," one government participant argued. "This mitigates risk of project failure and increases likelihood of vendor success, thereby enhancing past performance statistics for participants."

A decisive majority of vendors agreed with the statement, "Incentives for good performance of work performed are greater in GWACs than in many other kinds of government contract vehicles."

Some participants criticized GWACs for not doing enough to promote good contract performance. The two criticisms involved lack of past-performance databases for task orders and failure to promote use of performance-based statements of work for task orders.

"Try to get an actual non-anecdotal past-performance review from any GWAC contracting shop," one government participant complained. Another wrote, "Past performance on task orders cannot be adequately measured under the current system. Most shops staff the administration of the GWAC only to facilitate orders, not to track and enforce past-performance issues." Another government participant wrote, "Some of the people administering GWACs are not knowledgeable enough in technology, Clinger-Cohen law, performance-based contracting and performance metrics."

One written comment from a vendor also favored more task-order, past-performance databases, while another noted that if agencies were serious about performance-based contracting, they had to stop evaluating resumes. A third stated that someone needed to "implement true oversight of compliance with [Government Performance and Results Act] mandates...to achieve designated levels of performance and mission accomplishment."

I strongly believe GWAC managers need to do more to increase the value they add to the procurement process beyond the considerable value they already bring through improving procurement cycle time. One important example would be to do a better job developing a task-order, past-performance database for their GWAC. Another would be to develop generic performance-based statements of work for recurring kinds of task orders performed under GWACs. GWAC managers could use these value-added activities to help market their vehicle.

The bottom line: To judge by the participants in these panels, GWACs, whatever their faults, are a contract vehicle that has added real value to the government's procurement process and deserve our support and, if need be, our defense.

-- Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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