Air Force weighs competition and quality

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Air Force officials do not deny that the their streamlined acquisition strategy for commercial hardware and software will produce winners and losers. A handful of businesses will reap rewards as preferred providers, while everyone else looks on.

"It's always a balancing act to make sure you have enough suppliers on the front end to ensure competition and a small enough number [after competition] so you can work with a select few high-quality vendors," said Lt. Col. Thomas Gaylord, deputy director of the Air Force Information Technology Commodity Council.

It's not only a matter of limiting the pool of contractors but also of rationalizing the vendor base, said Gaylord speaking at the Air Force Information Technology Conference in Montgomery, Ala. The Air Force needs the right mix of suppliers for hardware, software and small businesses.

Gaylord was especially sensitive to the latter's concerns about being cut out of the Air Force market. Small businesses "are a big part of what we are doing," he said. "We want to make sure our [acquisition] priorities are properly aligned to support small businesses."

Streamlined buying often favors large businesses that have the capacity to deliver products and services across an organization as large as the Air Force. But Gaylord believes a more centralized approach to procurement could work in the favor of small businesses.

Air Force officials are setting up three blanket purchase agreements for small hardware vendors, and they hope to drive at least 6 percent of Air Force business to the small firms.

One group that may feel left out of the Air Force's new acquisition direction might be the sales force. Many companies put a lot of feet on the street to make deals with field offices. In the future, most buying decisions will be made centrally, so there "is not much value to the field folks," Gaylord said.

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