The science of SEWP

NASA mixes customer service and ease of use into a GWAC that serves agencies' needs

Federal IT purchasing contracts, like taxes, are a necessary evil not normally the object of rapturous elegies by their users. Which is why the near-total admiration expressed by a sampling of people who use the governmentwide acquisition contract run by NASA invites skepticism.

Can NASA's Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement be that good? Isn't there something it could do better? Once you realize that those entrusted with keeping SEWP cooking regularly ask themselves, their customers, and vendors the same question, the answer clearly is yes. SEWP is that good. The question is, why?

Started in 1991, the contract is now in its third authorization, SEWP III, which has processed $3.8 billion in cumulative business since it opened on July 30, 2001. Vendors and customers give much of the credit to program manager Joanne Woytek, whom they praise as a responsive, effective administrator who passionately believes in open and frequent communication.

'I'm never satisfied,' Woytek said. 'There are always ways to improve.'

Woytek's co-program manager, Willette Allen, also handles outreach while overseeing the 21 fellow employees of workforce-management vendor Indus Corp. of Vienna, Va., who run all administrative, financial, IT and customer-service functions. 'The Indus team is a performance-based contract that provides that support,' Allen said. 'Joanne provides the requirements, and we fill them.'

Woytek's people skills were sorely tested in 2003, when the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia over several southwestern states created an urgent need for high-end, multiprocessor SGI workstations to run imaging software needed to analyze the debris field. Funding had to be pulled from several NASA centers near the end of the fiscal year, which brought intense scrutiny from members of Congress looking to protect their districts, said Amanda Hudson, SEWP program manager for SGI, which has done $113 million in business through SEWP III.

'Joanne did a wonderful job'I can't tell you how much'making sure that deal was done right,' and within scope, Hudson said. 'She fielded a lot of questions. It was constant communication with her and the end-user customer to make sure we had everyone covered.'

Expanded mandate

SEWP started as a GWAC for the high-end computing that NASA favors, and the agency remains its biggest customer, but SEWP's focus has broadened.

'It has kind of become the go-to IT contract,' said Pat DuLaney, SEWP program manager at Government Micro Resources Inc. (GMRI), a small-business vendor on the contract. 'You can also get your keyboard and mouse.'

Putting it another way, DuLaney said SEWP delivers cutting-edge technology in commercial off-the-shelf products.

'You get on there, and they sell your whole catalog,' said Phil Waclawik, SEWP program manager at IBM Corp. 'It's become a GWAC for all federal agencies to buy all IT products.'

'They're pretty well run, and they've been around for a while,' said Marcus Fedeli, manager of federal opportunity products at market researcher Input Inc. of Reston, Va. 'There's not a lot of mystery to them, really.'

Fedeli listed a number of reasons for SEWP's success, including a clearly defined scope, years of experience and a reputation as an effective middleman that brings buyers and sellers together in a substantial market.

'Anybody who works at NASA knows [he] can get to SEWP for services A, B and C,' Fedeli said. 'Vendors who get on SEWP'they win work.'

A key contributor is the thematically named SEWP BOWL (Business Operations Workstation Laboratory), basically the customer-service and back-office operations. 'If someone has a question, they'll call the BOWL,' Allen said.

Added DuLaney: 'The ability of the SEWP BOWL to work with the customer community and vendor community is really what's made it such a successful contract.'

Customer training helps prove the value of SEWP services. 'They basically take that SEWP show on the road and tell the agencies how to use the contract and the benefits of using the contract,' DuLaney said. 'They get feedback from the customers on how to do this better. By getting input from both sides of the system, they really build the best possible system to use.'

Said Allen: 'We're not just following the dollars. It's a continuous dialogue' that includes not only the meetings, but monthly customer-satisfaction surveys and weekly quality-assurance calls. SEWP even took its road show to England last year.

Online presence

Besides crackerjack personal service, SEWP's online presence deserves credit for the contract's popularity. The complete, 400,000-product catalog is online. In contrast, the National Institutes of Health's Electronic Commodities Store III puts only part of its catalog online, said DuLaney, who also manages that contract for GMRI.

'I've used it quite a bit,' said Jaime Dempsey, a contracting officer at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, adding that Woytek flew down personally to conduct the training.

'Anytime we have any type of IT purchases, one of the first things I will do is go to the NASA SEWP Web site, which is fantastic, because there are a lot of products on there,' Dempsey said. 'Using SEWP is much easier than going open market.'

She called the online request-for-quotes tool excellent and easy to use. 'Within two days, you've got 20 responses,' she said.

Woytek and Allen stand ready to assist with the process. For example, if vendors respond slower than expected to one of Dempsey's RFQs, she can call the program managers, who will contact vendors within a day, she said.

The Web site also benefits vendors. 'I can use that tool to find out what my competitors are doing on their contracts, and they can do the same,' said IBM's Waclawik.

SEWP staff members examine RFQs to ensure proper procedure, such as giving fair consideration, is given to every vendor in a category.

While the raison d'etre of a GWAC is to handle procurement worries, such as minority set-asides, SEWP customers can still add their own requirements to delivery orders, said DuLaney.

SEWP asks much of its contract holders. They're required to attend quarterly meetings and an annual retreat where program managers are instructed to leave their sales hats at the door and focus on improving the contract. But SEWP gives much in return, according to several vendors.

One big reason for SEWP's popularity with vendors is its ability to add or remove products through a technical refresh. SEWP does so extremely quickly, sometimes in 24 hours. Customers like this, too, because it gives them a second chance at the items they want.

In contrast, a SEWP competitor, the General Services Administration's Federal Supply Service's IT Schedule 70, takes much longer to review refreshes, in Waclawik's experience. 'NASA just seems to have it down to a science,' he said. 'They invest themselves more personally in doing it. GSA is more this intimidating infrastructure, and no one has a feeling there's a real person behind it.'

SEWP is quicker to respond in part because staff already are familiar with vendor product plans and know what to expect from their pipelines, according to Waclawik.

Products in demand

Getting popular products onto the schedule is not just a convenience, but a requirement dictated by agency purchasing rules, said Cheryl Hampton, a Defense Department contract specialist who has used SEWP to buy high-end network hardware among other things.

'DOD came down heavy for buying things through the GSA schedule that were not on the schedule,' Hampton said. 'With SEWP, the vendor can propose it and SEWP will agree to add it. I think SEWP is closer to the contract. They are more cognizant of the customer and their needs.'

Not that Woytek and Allen give products a free pass; in fact, they review them for proper scope, fair and reasonable pricing, COTS status or to ensure they're not prototypes. Waclawik said SEWP also ensures that prospective additions are priced below GSA pricing.

'They inspect the contract in detail,' said Joe Calabria, president of Miratek Corp. Inc., one of SEWP's noncompeted, 8(a) set-aside vendors. Calabria lauded SEWP's order handling and administration, and said he processes more business through SEWP than any other contract.

'It's a good contract,' he said. 'Some people think [it's] the best one out there.'
The customers and vendors interviewed for this story agreed that compared with SEWP, GSA is slow to put products on its schedule, has less responsive customer-service people and presents more bureaucratic hurdles. It also suffers from having too many vendors'more than 5,000, according to a recent GCN report'rather than a handful of carefully screened ones such as SEWP's 17, several observers said. GSA users risk getting more RFQ responses than they can handle. 'It's almost easier to call the vendor and say, 'Where are you?'' Fedeli said. ''You're at SEWP? I'll take it.''

The Kennedy Space Center's Dempsey said GSA's competitive-bidding and request for proposal requirements are cumbersome compared to SEWP RFQs. 'GSA would require you to go to at least three vendors or go to at least three schedules,' she said.
SGI's Hudson added that while GSA has value, 'when you compare the two vehicles in
terms of time to get an order, it's exponentially different.'

She said GSA's ordering process is paperwork-heavy, burdens the procuring agency, and can take up to six weeks, while SEWP personnel take over such legwork right away. 'They move quickly,' she said. 'If they have to, they will prioritize it if it's a rated order, for example, and if they have it in the queue, they'll pick up the phone right away. The integrity with which they handle these data, I've never seen in a government entity. They're not just passing paper.'

Calabria is a harsh critic of GSA's higher fees, which can range from 0.75 percent for FSS, to 2 percent to 4 percent for FTS. SEWP's 0.65 percent, in contrast, is 'nominal' for what it buys, he said. 'The end user knows what's involved. It's not hidden.'

When asked to assess the efficiency of the recent proliferation of IT contracts from a vendor standpoint, Waclawik said the duplication adds costs that don't benefit vendors, customers, or taxpayers. What's more, he said, GSA's purchasing office will use SEWP to find a better price than they offer on their own schedule.

'We find ourselves being shopped and gamed and manipulated by the government,' he said. 'They're playing both ends off the middle. They won't tell us there's already a quote from GSA. It's wasting my resources, and it's probably slowing down the government procurement process when they [vendors] have to go and do another set of bids from another office.'

Such problems are only compounded as additional vehicles come along, such as the Homeland Security Department's giant Eagle agencywide contract. 'You don't know how many awards there are going to be,' Fedeli said. 'That's the frustration for the vendor community. They don't know where to put their effort.'

Making a new batch

With SEWP III's five-year authorization set to end this summer, Woytek has the go-ahead for SEWP IV, which will run seven years'two years longer than its predecessors. The RFP went out this past spring, and NASA extended the deadline to July 17.

'We hope to award the contact in the fall,' Woytek said. 'We are aiming for more multiaward contacts and providing more small-business contracts.'

SEWP IV will allow more of each purchase to go toward services, which NASA capped at 30 percent under SEWP III. Now, said DuLaney, buyers can include site planning and installation in the price, which leaves 10 percent for post-installation maintenance. DuLaney said the change could open SEWP to more complete, enterprise-class IT systems.

Woytek added that contracting officers will get mandatory training, and there will be no more single-award categories, which she hopes will boost competition.

'I want to empower the customer more,' Woytek said. 'There's always something we can do to help our customers out.'

David Essex is a freelance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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