SEWP still customer-focused (20 years and counting)

After 20 years as a fixture in the federal procurement firmament, NASA’s Solutions for Enterprisewide Procurement governmentwide acquisition contract has reached a pinnacle of sorts. From fairly modest beginnings, it’s now looked on as a trendsetter in terms of the kind of business approach that other contracts should take in dealing with both industry and government agency buyers.

More than any other procurement vehicle, it’s lauded for the speed with which it gets IT into the hands of its customers and for the close working relationships it maintains with both contract holders and agency users. It invokes sentiments you rarely hear leveled at other government contracts.

“Twenty years on and moving toward SEWP V, it’s become an immensely successful vehicle that has evolved a real business sense and takes an approach of wanting to continually improve,” said Alan Bechara, president of IT solutions provider PCMG, which has been on SEWP since the beginning. “It’s the closest thing to a commercial enterprise that exists inside of a government agency.”

PCMG funnels “a considerably disproportionate amount of our federal business” through SEWP, he said.

SEWP has evolved from the far simpler concept it started with in 1993, which was simply to help the scientists in NASA get computers faster. Back then, said Joanne Woytek, SEWP’s program manager, it could take 12 months for one to be bought and delivered.

“It began at Goddard [Space Flight Center] when policy, contracting and technical people got together to see what they could do about this,” she said. “Usually it’s really hard to get these people to agree on anything, but in this case, they put together a good contract, and afterwards [the General Services Administration] asked us to try it out as a GWAC pilot.”

For the first six years of the contract, the approach was pretty low-key and still tightly focused on helping NASA first and foremost, and the acronym SEWP better reflected its original purpose as the Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement. But other agencies kept coming to the contract to buy their IT, and when Woytek took on the program manager role in 1999, she decided a more business-like approach was needed.

SEWP finally settled on its current designation — Solutions for Enterprisewide Procurement — in 2007.

Over time, the contract has evolved to emphasize two things in particular: customer and vendor relationships and the blinding speed of execution, at least by government standards.

The SEWP program office has people specifically assigned to handle either contract holder or agency customer queries. People can call in with questions, and someone in the SEWP office will either pick up instantly or get back to them within minutes. Likewise, companies can get contract modifications approved almost instantly and almost certainly within an hour or so.

The SEWP staff meets with both vendors and agency customers quarterly to take their input, and constantly works with both sides to make sure the contract gets better, said Donna Norris, SEWP IV program manager at PCMG.

“It’s a continuous-feedback loop,” she said. “When I have questions or a suggestion for how to make things better, I can call the contract holder relationship manager and get a response within a day or so with questions. SEWP also doesn’t have a problem saying this isn’t the right contract for a customer and that they should use something else.”

They also use the same technology they sell, she said. When PCMG submits its daily technical refresh, that’s immediately bounced against a database of what current contract holders are selling, and within seconds, they can tell whether the prices in the refresh are fair and reasonable. Or they can flag something that might be a potential problem and, if necessary, reject something on a line-item basis.

“It’s not unusual to have my technical refresh approved within five minutes,” Norris said. “It’s unusual if it takes an hour.”

Woytek said that’s been part of the guiding philosophy for SEWP from the beginning — to consider contract holders as partners, not enemies, in helping the contract succeed.

“I say it every time we meet with them,” she said. “You compete for orders but cooperate with the program.”

It’s important not to take the adulation too far, said Ray Bjorklund, president of BirchGrove Consulting and a former federal procurement official. SEWP managers have been following the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), not creating wholly new ways of doing business.

“What’s really been innovative has been the ordering process they’ve developed, along with the workflow associated with applying the FAR,” he said. “They also realize they are a conduit for connecting vendors to customers. They have a pretty good idea of what makes the market tick and have evolved [SEWP] to be sensitive to that.”

In that sense, he said, the SEWP program office has become “a real business facilitator.”

Not everything has gone smoothly. In 2007, the SEWP program office became enmeshed for a while in a very public dispute over whether NASA should be involved in IT procurement at all. Inspired by what many observers saw as envy at the growing success of SEWP, GSA’s then-administrator, Lurita Doan, suggested her agency take over the contract so that NASA would be better able to focus on what it does best.

“GSA is the premier location for procurement, and what we want to do is allow agencies to focus on their core mission,” she said.

There was precedent for this. In 2004, GSA took over the Transportation Department’s Information Technology Omnibus Procurement contract. But vendor and agency pushback, buttressed by GSA’s own internal problems, kept SEWP firmly ensconced at NASA.

At this stage in its history, SEWP and the contract’s program office are now an established success. SEWP IV is used by every federal agency and has processed more than 25,000 orders annually at an average of some $85,000 per order, for a yearly total of more than $2.1 billion. There’s no reason to expect that will not continue under SEWP V.

That, along with the success of other GWACs hosted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and GSA, is even tempering concern that there might be too many of these kinds of competing vehicles for the government’s procurement good. Each is increasingly seen as a force in its own right, and they can form the legs of a cooperative triumvirate that will act to further government contracting.

Again, don’t take this too far. After all, the purpose of a program manager’s job is first and foremost to make his or her own contract a success. But there are tantalizing signs that the existing GWACs, as Woytek put it, might be gelling around the idealistic reason for their existence, which is to provide a governmentwide capability to improve government contracting.

“I think what’s happened is that, as we’ve become a little more stable over the past five or more years, we have gotten better at cooperating,” she said. “I tell customers that they might be better [off] going to the NIH, and the NIH does the same for us.”

There might be overlaps and some competition here and there, she admitted, but the main goal is to be the best resource for customers in the case of all three GWAC agencies.

“We tell people in our training and outreach that these are the three primaries that can help them, and we’ve even got a couple of slides in our training presentation that tells them about the other GWACs,” she said. “This is the message we want to go out to people.”