NIH's GWAC adjusts to new procurement rules to cut waste, increase competition

Monday - 6/11/2012, 12:07pm EDT

Mary Armstead, NITAAC program director

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The National Institutes of Health's Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment Center (NITAAC) administers governmentwide acquisition contracts (GWACs) for information technology, and is making adjustments to how it does business in response to two recent rule changes from the administration.

In a September 2011 memo, the Office of Management and Budget called for agencies who want to stand up an enterprise-wide, multi-agency or GWAC to develop a business case.

"The whole idea is OFPP's [Office of Federal Procurement Policy] emphasis on targeting overlapping and duplicative contracts. The notion is they want agencies to consider the suitability of existing contracts before moving forward with their own," said Mary Armstead, program director of NITACC in an interview with The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.

Mary Armstead, program director for NITAAC, at the Federal News Radio studios. (Photo by Jolie Lee/Federal News Radio)

The business case then must be approved by the agency's senior procurement official, the director of the Office of the Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, and, if IT is involved, the chief information officer.

If approved by all parties, the agency posts the business case to OMB's MAX website for 15 days for public comment. The agency must consider these comments in determining whether or not to pursue the contract.

The new rule reflects the administration's efforts to cut budgets and "better leverage" its acquisition dollars.

Another rule in May 2011 aimed to improve competition at the task order level.

"Apparently, from OFPP's point of view, there was an increase in the number, type of sole-source endeavors on the task-order level, follow-ons and what have you. So in order to pull back and control this a little bit, there was a rule implemented last spring that requires, depending on the threshold, justifications in order to define and explain the need for sole source," Armstead said.

If the requirement is at the $650,000 level, the justification is "not that painful" and can be signed by the contracting official, Armstead said.

However, once a contract gets up to the $12.5 million level, the competition advocate's signature is required, she said.

Those justifications are posted to FedBizOpps.

"I think the administration has been effective in making its point that we need to look very hard, very closely at non-competitive activity ... and make sure everyone has a fair opportunity," Armstead said.

Keeping contract offerings relevant

The contract offerings are focused on 10 task areas, with a "predominant focus" on biomedical research, health sciences and health IT.

"We sort of lead with that as our number one task area, but we also provide support as we have in the past, imaging, outsourcing, IT operations and maintenance, enterprise management systems — anything that one could desire in terms of IT support, solution to serve their critical mission needs, they can obtain it under the CIO-SP3 effort," Armstead said.

To keep contracts current over the years, Armstead said NITAAC relies on "three C's":

  • Contract structure

    Evolving technology — and the evolving needs of government customers — has demanded contracts be flexible. NITAAC allows for additional labor categories to be added at the task order level.

    Also, on the product side, contractors can "refresh" contract line items, Armstead said. She added that these changes happen on a daily basis and NITACC staff are able to review and approve these changes "within a matter of hours."

  • Customer service

    NITAAC employees include contract specialists, contract officers, IT specialists and program managers, Armstead said.

    "These individuals take very seriously the mission around customer support and satisfaction," she said. "their responde is rapid, it's efficient and effective. I think it keeps customers coming back and ensures we remain relevant."

  • Contractors

    Armstead calls the vendors on the contract the "best of the best." With the recent addition of vendors, NITAAC spent a year "combing through proposals."

    "At the end of the day, we're able to stand up awards with vendors who are relevant, who will remain engaged in our program to the extent they are able to provide a variety of different solutions to the federal agencies," Armstead said.

Making of the GWAC

After the Clinger-Cohen Act passed in the mid-1990s, NIH recognized the need for an IT contract vehicle.

"The notion was looking at the needs as it related to IT services, as it related to IT products, and provide a vehicle to address those needs,"

Soon the Department of Health and Human Services became a "very large user" and other agencies followed suit, Armstead said.

By September 2000, the Office of Management and Budget designated NIH the GWAC administrator.

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