Air Force creates new openings for small businesses

The first NetCents contract had what its developers called an “aggressive” small business strategy, with a goal of a 20 percent minimum of the total contract dollars going to small business set-asides, and another 20 percent of the money that large contractors got designated for small business subcontractors.

In NetCents-2, small businesses will have a much bigger stake, and will be able to compete broadly for business throughout the contract, and not have to rely just on set-asides and subcontracting. If the goals for NetCents-2 are met, small businesses could net just under half of the $24.2 billion total contract ceiling.

In the NetCents-2 Products contract vehicle, for example, a non-set aside category steers 23 percent of the total obligated dollars to small business subcontracts. Also, contracting officers have the discretion to invoke a fair-opportunity exception and set aside orders to small businesses that meet FAR Part 19 requirements.

For the NetCents-2 Application Services and Network Operations/Infrastructure Solutions categories, the Air Force has established a separate Small Business Companion IDIQ contract. Any requirement in these categories that fall between $3,000 and $150,000 will be competed among only the small business companion pool of companies.

For those tasks of $150,000 or more, the task order has to be competed among the companion contract pool of companies if market research shows that there is a “reasonable expectation” of receiving at least two offers from companies in the small business companion contract, and that they are capable of performing the work.

On top of that, all large businesses in the NetCents-2 program must provide a small business sub-contracting plan.

The lessons learned from NetCents-1 showed that, with the small number of vendors, there just wasn’t as much opportunity for small businesses as the Air Force would have liked, said Robert Smothers, chief of the Logistics and Installation Systems Branch at Maxwell AFB-Gunter Annex, and the NetCents-2 program manager.

“But we think there is a tremendous opportunity now, particularly on the application services side,” he said. “These [small companies] have proven they can go out and do the work for the Air Force, and get it done at a very efficient price.”

The fact that there is the companion contract on the application services and network operations vehicles should help small business, said Ashley Bergander, manager for federal information solutions at Deltek, Inc.

“Even if a small business doesn’t really have the infrastructure to wholly provide a global service for the Air Force, if they can be a prime on a contract they can team with a larger organization that does,” she said.

The good thing is that, with the experience of NetCents-1, small businesses should have a better sense of what’s required of them, she said. While there may be some growing pains with adapting to NetCents-2, “overall I think they are probably aware of what they are getting in to.”

A lot of persuasion will still probably be needed to convince Air Force users that small businesses can do the job, said John Hanifan, vice president and general, DOD and VA (West) for Iron Bow Technologies, one of the NetCents-2 small business awardees. After all, he said, “no-one gets fired for hiring General Dynamics or Lockheed Martin, and if those companies have been doing a lot of this stuff for them, then they are going to want to continue on that road rather than going to a small business.”

But small businesses have already shown they can provide what the Air Force needs, he said, and have been doing that for years. The real question is if the Air Force contract officers are really going to follow the rules as they are laid out for NetCents-2, “or are they going to look aside and let things go, as they have in the past.”