Air Force responds to vendors' complaints

After strong industry complaints about its controversial acquisition strategy for purchasing computer products, the Air Force this month announced it will loosen the criteria it uses to choose bidders when it develops the next contract under the acquisition.

The Standard Systems Group released a special notice that defined its process for procuring reseller-supplied systems under its multimillion-dollar Information Technology Tools (IT2) procurement. SSG said it has opened the process to more vendors and has included another process to evaluate past performance.

The notice answers several objections that vendors raised in March when SSG awarded multiple contracts for desktops, servers, notebooks and peripherals. The awards were the first for IT2, which is intended to replace the Air Force's suite of indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity IT contracts with blanket purchase agreements over a period of five years.

Vendors and industry groups had complained that SSG used a survey of vendor performance from anonymous federal agencies to make a list of vendors it wanted to invite to bid on the contracts. The survey was conducted by FCW Media Group Inc., the parent company of Federal Computer Week.

After the awards, several vendors and industry groups said it was unfair that only vendors on the survey were considered, and the Professional Services Council (PSC) and the Information Technology Association of America sent a joint letter to the Office of Federal Procurement Policy asking for a formal review of the acquisition strategy.

Lt. Col. Glenn Taylor, chief of the Commercial Information Technology Product Area Directorate at SSG, said the changes are meant to improve the acquisition process. "A cornerstone of our IT2 strategy is continuous improvement," he said. "We believe we have a pretty good idea on how to proceed, but we are not so arrogant as to think we have all the best ideas. So, based in part on our own internal review of our process and comments from industry, we sought ways to improve our process."

"As I think the community has come to expect from SSG, [it is] continuing to push the envelope and find the best acquisition strategy," said Steven Kelman, former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and now a professor at Harvard University. "[SSG is] continually revising and adapting [its] strategy; it is not a fixed document."

But the changes may do more harm than good in the long run, said Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc. and a former Air Force procurement official.

"Now it's not really a full-and-open competition, but it's not a simplified acquisition either," Mather said. "I think they're just mixing the rules up, and I don't think it's going to help.... I think once you start down this path it's a slippery slope, and the more baggage you pick up, the more time is going to be wasted."The Air Force's strategy is compliant with the Federal Acquisition Regulation process for BPAs, according to several procurement experts, and current OFPP administrator Deidre Lee said last month that she stands "100 percent" behind the Air Force. But OFPP has begun an informal review of general BPA procurement practices, and SSG has changed its acquisition strategy to directly address industry complaints.

Under its new acquisition strategy, the Air Force will still start narrowing down the resellers that can bid by referring to the FCW Media Group survey. SSG, under its new "acquisition process improvements," will make the list public "to allow other interested offerors to see who the competition is and assist in determining whether or not they would like to compete for the acquisition," according to the notice.

Those vendors that want to be included in the upcoming BPA invitation must have completed and submitted a questionnaire on the SSG World Wide Web site by May 21. SSG will evaluate the responses to the questionnaire to determine if the resellers will be included on a final invitation list.

In another change, SSG plans to require all vendors invited to bid to submit a list of contacts from the 10 most recent contract vehicles they have worked on that have had similar requirements as the Air Force's BPAs. SSG plans to use the list to conduct a past-performance evaluation.

This new strategy was praised by PSC president Bert Concklin and by vendors that met with Taylor over the past month. "We're very pleased that the Air Force is giving companies like us opportunity to compete," said Mary Souther, vice president of Defense programs at ITC (formerly IntelliSys Technology Corp.), a vendor not included in the survey.

But others feel that the Air Force has gone out of its way to accommodate the protests, and they worry that this could snowball into problems for SSG in the future.

"That's more than the Air Force had to do," said Alan Bechara, vice president and chief operating officer for Comark Federal Systems, one of the nine resellers listed in the survey and a winner of one of the SSG BPAs to supply the Air Force with peripherals. "I think it's way beyond the call of duty for them to put out a questionnaire and go through the evaluation that entails."

The new acquisition will take more time, Taylor admitted, but he believes that it will be time well spent as the Air Force becomes more open with industry.

While SSG's use of the past-performance survey in place of past-performance evaluations is backed by the FAR, "we are creating strategic relationships with our selected vendors that we all want to be successful, [and] we sought out ways to make this happen," Taylor said.

"While performance is important in all acquisitions, I believe it is critical to a successful IT effort," he said. "Bad performers don't support our customers and are much harder and more expensive to manage than good performers. Spending a little more time here—at the time of acquisition—will save us time on the other end."

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