Officials hope a Section 803 training and awareness campaign will reduce procurement missteps

Publishing a rule to expand competition for information technology service contracts, as the Defense Department is doing to activate the Section 803 procurement reform, is only the first step in putting the regulation into effect. After all, if no one gets to read it, or understands what it means when they do, what's the point of writing it?

That's where marketing and training come in. DOD and the General Services Administration are planning major assaults in both areas to try to quickly bring military procurement officers and their agents up to speed on Section 803's implications.

The need is not lost on either agency. While officials in each organization say previous training and education programs stressed the requirement to compete IT service contracts, some contracting officers obviously did not get the message.

In a November 2000 report to Congress on DOD's use of GSA's Federal Supply Service (FSS) to buy IT services, the General Accounting Office found that most DOD contracting officers did not follow GSA's procedures for ensuring fair and reasonable prices. Instead, they often relied on a comparison of vendors' labor rates listed in the FSS, and they generally ended up placing orders with incumbent contractors.

Contracting officers were not deliberately circumventing the rules. The main reason procedures were not followed, GAO concluded, was that "many contracting officers were not even aware of the GSA's requirement to seek competitive quotes."

Likewise, in a September 2001 audit of multiple-award services contracts, DOD's Office of the Inspector General (IG) took military procurement organizations to task for not adequately competing multiple-award task orders. Of the 423 it reviewed, only 119 were competed and only 82 of those orders received multiple bids.

In addition, some procurement officers apparently have complied with the competition requirements, though their idea of competition didn't match up with what DOD executives believe the term means. Deidre Lee, director of Defense procurement and acquisition policy, told a conference in Washington, D.C., this year that putting out a solicitation for a services contract on a Friday night and looking for a response the following Monday morning "is unprofessional and unacceptable."

Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group, said some of his organization's members have reported that some contracting officers have asked them to be the third company in a contract competition simply to make up Section 803's three-bid requirement, understanding that their company had no chance of winning the award.

If that report is true, it also is unacceptable, Lee said. "It's unfair to contractors since the whole point of the ruling is to increase competition and to be fair about the whole process," she said. "We don't want any more of this 'wink, wink' attitude."

GSA and DOD are collaborating on training programs that they hope this time will drive home the need, as set out in Section 803, to more fully compete multiple-award service contracts.

A session called "Section 803 and Me," for example, will be a prominent part of the procurement track scheduled for this week's [DESK: expo will be held May 6-8] GSA Expo 2003 in San Antonio. People who attend these professional training seminars will be able to claim continuing education credits. GSA, through other regular training seminars, will push to advertise the benefits of its e-Buy program as a way for DOD buyers to meet Section 803 requirements.

"The military is the GSA's largest schedules user, and we have many loyal DOD customers that have used us effectively and we want to have that relationship continue," said Neal Fox, GSA's assistant commissioner for commercial acquisition. "We hope that our response with the e-Buy tool will show that we are trying to meet their concerns" about Section 803.

E-Buy is a component of GSA Advantage! and provides a way for buyers to prepare and post a request for quotes (RFQ) for specific services and products online for a certain period of time. Each RFQ is assigned a Special Item Number (SIN), and buyers can send an e-mail notification of the RFQ to all or some of the sellers listed under that SIN. Sellers that are not notified can still submit a quote for a posted RFQ.

The Office of Management and Budget has recommended e-Buy as an ideal way for DOD buyers to meet their Section 803 competition requirements, Fox said.

The Defense Acquisition University (DAU) will lead the training for DOD (www.dau.mil). It has already published introductions to what Section 803 means for DOD contracting officials, but the main thrust of its training will come through its Continuing Learning Center.

A new online training module called "Section 803 Competition Requirements for Services" has already been posted. "This kind of online, continuous learning has been a major advantage for us over the past few years and has allowed us to get training out to people much closer to the implementation of policies," said Rex Bragaw, acting director at DAU's contracting center.

DOD and GSA have also collaborated on producing a video that shows how to implement Section 803 requirements when buying off GSA schedules and other governmentwide acquisition contracts. Other training materials and general information about Section 803 are also available at DOD's main procurement Web site (www.acq.osd.mil/dp/Section803.htm).

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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