Shouldering the burden

The Transportation Department is trying to relieve federal contracting shops from much of the drudgery involved with buying technology services.

The Transportation Administrative Service Center (TASC) has run numerous billion-dollar government.wide acquisition contracts in recent years, making it easier for agencies to locate contractors that offer the information technology services they need.

But as part of its two most recent governmentwide programs, TASC has developed a procurement process in which its acquisition team bears most of the burden of managing the contracts, so the contracting shops of its customers — that is, other agencies — can focus their energies elsewhere.

TASC put these processes in place last August as part of its Value Added Niche Information Technology Services (VANITS) program, which was followed last month by the related Specialized Tech.nical and Technology User Services (STATUS) program. VANITS and STATUS offer services from more than 100 contractors in specific technology areas, such as geo..graphic information systems and e-commerce. Agencies can award task orders through VANITS and STATUS instead of setting up their own contracts.

The services include a Web-based procurement system that guides customers through every step of the process, from creating a statement of work to paying invoices (see box). TASC also has set up a procurement process in which customers and vendors contract with TASC, rather than with each other, so that agencies can rely on the contracting expertise of the program office.

The idea is to give customer contracting personnel the checks they need to oversee task orders without taking on a lot of extra work.

Contracting officers "can still maintain control because they have a contracting officer's role as part of the statement of work," said Steve Sill, STATUS program manager. "But the work is taken off them."

TASC not only puts technology to work, but also its own people. TASC staff members work with customers to keep tabs on a task order throughout the process, from its creation to the award.

The combination of the Web-based system and TASC's contracting expertise can make quick work of procurement, Sill said. A task order can be awarded "in days or weeks, rather than months."

The National Cancer Institute was able to award a VANITS task order for analytic support for its help desk in about 18 working days. When the process began, NCI officials had no idea what the competition was like, but shortly after putting together the statement of work, they received three or four bids, said Ted Sintetos, NCI senior computer specialist. In the past, such a contract "would have taken at least six to eight weeks," he said. "This cut it down so quick. It was beautiful."

E-procurement can make life easier for contracting employees in a lot of ways, but one of the biggest paybacks comes in requisition and invoicing, said Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc. Anything that shortens the process of getting an invoice approved and paid will lighten the workload by allowing staff members "to work on the exception, instead of working on every one," Mather said.

"It's just real slick and easy," said Dennis Neimeier, integrated product team lead for the Federal Aviation Administration's Safety Performance Analysis System. "They give me the invoice for the previous month, and all I have to do is validate that, type in three initials and send it back."

Despite not having much procurement experience, Neimeier said he found the process amazingly easy, "compared to the [contracting] horror stories before."

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