Air Force BPA strategy draws fire

The contracting strategy used by the Air Force's Standard Systems Group to procure replacement blanket purchase agreements for its information technology product and service contracts is drawing fire from vendors claiming that the Air Force is violating the intent of competitive contracting.

SSG has designed a new contracting strategy, called Information Technology Tools, to replace over the next five years the Air Force's current indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity and BPA IT contracts.

Bids are due this week on the first round of contracts to provide desktops, notebooks and servers for the Air Force. Dell Computer Corp. and Micron Electronics Inc. currently hold the Air Force BPAs. Several vendors are considering filing a protest with the General Accounting Office because under the new strategy, SSG is extending invitations to bid only to a group of vendors defined by an outside survey. Vendors have been reluctant to confirm officially whether they have been invited to bid; however, industry sources said that in addition to the incumbents, Compaq Computer Corp. and Gateway Inc. are likely bidders in the first round. Government Technology Services Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. also have been mentioned as possible partners and bidders.

The contracting office determined the list of vendors eligible to compete based on the "Federal Government IT Community Evaluates Vendor Competitiveness" survey issued in March 1998 by FCW Media Group Inc., the parent company of Federal Computer Week. The choice was "due to the large number of contract holders on the [General Services Administration's] Federal Supply Schedule that could potentially satisfy the requirement and enable us to still meet our time constraints," according to the acquisition strategy.

"I have interacted with [SSG], but they didn't tell me what they were doing," said Steve LeCompte, vice president of research and development at FCW Media Group. The survey was intended to measure past performance statistically and to measure the brand values of companies in the federal IT market, he said.

"If the Air Force is using the FCW rating as the primary source to determine who is eligible to bid on a procurement opportunity, it is an egregious miscarriage of public policy, regulatory structure and good common sense," said Bert Concklin, president of the Professional Services Council (PSC), an association that includes some companies interested in bidding on the BPAs.

There are some who are not surprised to see the survey used in this manner. "The Air Force is using the FCW survey exactly as it should be used...and that is as an initial screening device," said Steven Kelman, Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a contributor to the survey.

The annual survey is based on anonymous ratings by federal FCW subscribers; vendors that are not on the list and those on the list that received poor scores are questioning the choice of an anonymous survey as the basis for the invitation list.

"We're not thrilled that they based the bidders list on this survey," said Larry Kirsch, senior vice president of Computer Discount Warehouse-Government, a company not included in the survey because it only came on the GSA schedule last year. "The only people they're shorting is the Air Force."

"I think a company like CDW-G that is fairly new to the federal marketplace has a legitimate complaint," Kelman said. "SSG owes it to itself to check with [CDW-G's] commercial customers for their past performance in that market."

"An integral part of the [Federal Acquisition Regulation] Part 15 is that contractors have the right to know about, access and refute any negative past-performance information," PSC's Concklin said.

As a procurement based on GSA's Federal Supply Service schedule, a BPA is not under the competitive rules of FAR Part 15, but the question of competitiveness is still an issue, said Bob Dornan, senior vice president of Federal Sources Inc.

"Absolutely there's a competitive issue, but it's a compromise that Congress has accepted," Dornan said. "They have acknowledged that [a BPA] is a quasi-competitive contract."

On SSG's World Wide Web site, the contracting office admits that "the criteria we have chosen to identify a group of schedule holders might...exclude some potential vendors who could also meet part of the USAF requirement." But the office is sticking with its stated strategy.

No one was available at SSG late last week to comment on the issue.

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