Air Force speeds awards for PCs, add-ons

Despite continuing opposition to its methods of evaluating and limiting bidders, the Air Force last week awarded blanket purchase agreements worth hundreds of millions of dollars to six vendors to provide the military service with information technology products and services.

The Air Force's Standard Systems Group awarded BPAs worth $417 million to Dell Marketing LP, Gateway Inc. and Micron Electronics Inc. for desktops, servers and notebook systems. The group also awarded BPAs to Comark Federal Systems, Government Technology Services Inc. and Westwood Computer Corp. for peripherals, including printers, scanners and plotters. According to several sources, those BPAs are worth about $35 million annually.

Under the new Information Technology Tools strategy to streamline the acquisition of commercial off-the-shelf computer and networking products, the Air Force will replace all its indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts with BPAs over the next five years. The new BPAs are open to all Defense Department services and organizations.

"This week, when we go live with these new BPAs, we will be saving the Air Force 30 to 38 percent below GSA prices every time we buy a desktop computer, even in quantities of one," said Robert Frye, SSG's executive director. This could bring a system priced at $1,300 on the GSA schedule down to almost $800.

"This is a different approach for the Air Force and one that shows a lot of promise for success," said Joel Lipkin, vice president for business development at GTSI.

The Air Force set itself an aggressive schedule to award each block of products within a month, taking only two weeks to evaluate bids, and SSG has met each deadline.

"I think that's probably the quickest that I've heard of on multiple-award BPAs," said Robert Guerra, president of consulting firm Robert J. Guerra & Associates.

The desktop computers available through the BPAs are systems with Intel Corp.'s Pentium II 400 MHz and 450 MHz processors; Pentium III processors will be included in the future.

Now that the contract is open to all of DOD, the customer base that vendors can count on is larger than ever. "I think that might have been part of the rationale behind the three awards," said Harry Heisler, vice president and general manager of Micron Government Systems.

All three of the computer products vendors are direct manufacturers that bid their own products. "The fact that the three winners were direct means that delivery was a major component for the Air Force," said Mark Amtower, president of Amtower & Associates consulting firm.

But SSG plans to provide its customers with a wider range of products by bringing resellers into the mix fairly soon, according to the acquisition strategy.

The invitations to resellers to bid on what SSG is calling multi-brand systems was expected to go out April 12 and are due to be awarded May 14. Multi-brand systems, according to the acquisition strategy, are brand-name systems other than those that won the first round - in this case, Dell, Micron and Gateway. The resellers must bid at least two systems.

SSG deliberately timed the award of the first BPAs and the release of invitations for the second BPAs "in order to determine which systems cannot be duplicated in the Multi-Brand Supplier Market Category," according to the strategy.

Last month several vendors and industry groups complained that SSG's use of an anonymous survey to choose which companies to invite to bid on the contract violated the intent of competitive contracting. To determine the vendors eligible to compete through established past performance, the Air Force used a survey - "Federal Government IT Community Evaluates Vendor Competitiveness" - based on ratings by federal Federal Computer Week subscribers and issued in March 1998 by FCW Media Group Inc., the parent company of FCW.

At least one group is working on a letter to Deidre Lee, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy's administrator, requesting an official review of SSG's policy.

"What we're clearly saying is that we think what went on was very bad procurement policy," said Bert Concklin, president of the Professional Services Council, which drafted the letter along with the Information Technology Association of America. "It puts procurement on a slippery slope when you can compromise competition like that."

The council understands that past performance plays an important part in new federal procurement practices, but the group believes the use of an anonymous survey blocks vendors' right to respond to poor performance ratings. The letter, which the group expects to send this week, "is a strong request to OFPP for an early policy review of what we believe to be a wrong precedent," Concklin said.

SSG stands by its methods, however. "We are confident that the process we followed met all guidelines for use of GSA BPAs, including competition," Frye said. "However, we're constantly seeking ways to improve our process."

"If you do it this way, the end result is the same," said Chip Mather, vice president of consulting firm Acquisition Solutions Inc. and a former Air Force procurement officer. "You end up with those vendors that would have been 'blue' under the old Air Force standards, and the end result is equal to or better than the result under a [government-wide acquisition contract]."

- Daniel Verton contributed to this article.

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AT A GLANCE

Desktop Systems on the Air Force BPAs

* Dell: OptiPlex GX1 400 MHz and 450 MHz Pentium II, and Dimension XPS 450 Mhz Pentium II* Micron: ClientPro CS 450 MHz Pentium II* Gateway: GP Series 400 MHz and 450 MHz Pentium II

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