SARA panel: Boost competition through commercial best practices

SARA panel final report

Government’s competitive procurement of information technology goods and services could change substantially if all of the recently published final recommendations of the Acquisition Advisory Panel are implemented. The panel stressed the need for closer ties to commercial best practices.

The most talked about change urged by the panel – also known as the SARA panel after the Services Acquisition Reform Act of 2003 that authorized it – is the move away from time-and-materials contracts because they take too much effort to oversee. Instead, the panel favors performance-based acquisitions.

But other significant recommendations include setting up a new General Services Administration schedule for professional services, redefining stand-alone commercial services, applying the three-bid minimum requirement for Defense Department services over the simplified acquisition threshold governmentwide, and amending the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) to improve transparency in government contracting.

GSA should be allowed to set up a new IT schedule for professional services in which prices are based on competition rather than posted rates because pricing for services “is requirement specific,” the panel said.

“The price for services depends, to a greater degree, on the level of effort and mix of skills necessary to meet the government’s need” for an individual requirement order, it said. “Rates play a role but are more often determined based on the specifics of the individual requirements and current market conditions.”

Under the new schedule, prices would be determined at the order level based on competition for the specific requirement to be performed rather than at the time the contract is negotiated. That would increase competition at the order level, the panel said, and industry and GSA could save money and improve efficiency.

The panel said it was concerned that the current schedule structure for IT services “remains static at a time of increased dynamism in the commercial sector.”

On stand-alone services, the SARA panel said it wants to remove a discrepancy between regulatory and statutory language it says has led to the government acquiring services not commonly available in the commercial marketplace as commercial services.

That’s because the regulations apply the “of a type” language that law uses for commercial items, so that buyers can acquire the next generation of items and services as they become available. The FAR should be amended so that everything but those services sold in substantial quantities in the commercial marketplace should be acquired under traditional contracting methods, the panel said.

The panel also found something of a discrepancy in the way DOD and the rest of the government are supposed to make orders for services against multiple-award contracts. For orders more than $100,000, DOD buyers must ensure they get at least three responses from GSA schedule holders. If the contract is not a part of the schedules, DOD buyers must get to all contractors capable of doing the work and make sure they have a fair chance to make a proposal.

Civilian agencies, on the other hand, simply have to comply with FAR Part 16.5, which deals with indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contracts. The panel said there is no logical basis for having two sets of fair opportunity regimes, and it recommended all government agencies comply with the Section 803 requirements DOD works with.

That should also apply to all orders, not those just limited to services, it said.

To generally increase transparency and openness in government contracting, the SARA panel said the FAR should be changed to require a FedBizOpps notice for all sole-source orders in excess of the $100,000 simplified acquisition threshold placed against multiple-award contracts and blanket purchase agreements.

Transparency into government requirements by the public “promotes competition by familiarizing the public with what the government buys” and “promotes public confidence in the awarding of government contracts,” the panel said.

However, the growth of IDIQ contracts and the schedules programs in the past decade have reduced the visibility the public has into many nondefense procurements, it said.

“Sole-source orders under these vehicles should not be subject to a lesser standard of transparency,” which has led some people to question whether the government complies with its own procedures and whether taxpayers received the best value in such procurements, the panel said.

About the Author

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

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