In just weeks, Census awards big notebook leasing contract

The Census Bureau last month awarded to Comark Inc. a $50 million lease-purchase
contract for up to 21,500 notebook computers.


The buy is one of several pilot procurements under a Commerce Department streamlining
program.


At least one unsuccessful bidder said his company plans to protest the award. Even so,
one goal of the streamlining program--cutting the time needed to award a contract--appears
to have been met, Census officials said.


"We had conducted two similar procurements in the past, and each one took about a
year," said Mark Taylor, chief of the Census Contracting Office. It took only 20
weeks to award the notebook contract to Comark, a Bloomingdale, Ill., company.


The company's federal arm, Comark Government & Education Sales Inc. of
Gaithersburg, Md., bid the 620CT Protege from Toshiba America Inc. of Irvine, Calif.
Initial deliveries are expected to begin this month.


Census plans to lease up to 6,500 notebooks for two or three years for use by
fieldworkers in ongoing surveys. The bureau will lease as many as 15,000 more notebooks in
2000 for one year, during the decennial census.


The leasing arrangement relieves Census of the burden of maintaining and disposing of a
stock of hardware needed only for one year out of 10.


Although bidders were asked to include purchase pricing for the computers, Census
officials now predict they will not exercise a buy option. However, they wanted the
flexibility to change their minds during the course of the contract.


The Commerce Department's Concept of Operations program, known as ConOps, is intended
to streamline systems acquisitions [GCN, Aug. 12, Page 14]. An independent team
will evaluate the results of the notebook acquisition and other pilot procurements using
stripped-down buying methods.


The notebook acquisition drew an unusual number of vocal complaints from unsuccessful
bidders. One called it "desperately bad." That bidder, George Fuster, president
of International Data Products Corp. of Gaithersburg, Md., said, "All they needed was
very low-end stuff."


The Toshiba notebook that Comark offered exceeded the bureau's specifications and cost
$800 per unit more than IDP's bid, Fuster said. "It is very misleading for them to
say the project goal was an inexpensive system," he said.


Fuster said there appeared to be no objective formula for determining best value.
"We have not protested the deal yet," he said. "But we plan to."


Census specified at least a 50-MHz 486 notebook with 8M of memory and a 250M hard
drive, weighing no more than 5.25 pounds. The Toshiba Protege has a 100-MHz Pentium
processor and a 1.2G hard drive and weighs 4.5 lbs. It has a 10.4-inch active-matrix
screen and is described as a subnotebook--9.9 inches wide, 7.9 inches deep and 2 inches
high.


The Census solicitation made weight a crucial factor. "Obviously for a census
taker, it's perfect," Toshiba federal sales manager Jan O'Hara said.


In the evaluation criteria, past performance and capability of supplying the computers
also were given more emphasis than cost.


Under ConOps, the procurement was handled by a team that will oversee the project
through the acquisition's close. The team received permission to take some shortcuts from
the Federal Acquisition Regulation, letting it express contract requirements in terms of
mission objectives; combine publicizing, market research and solicitation into a single
process; and to use a fixed-price contract without preparing a determination of findings
that no other type of contract was more suitable.


The team handled the technical evaluations of the proposals, selected the viable
bidders and conducted negotiations.


For some, the process was too streamlined. One unsuccessful bidder was unhappy that
there were no best-and-final offers and that the deadline for submitting proposals was
extended at the last minute, apparently to accommodate a late bidder.


"Every indication was they were going to do a best-and-final," said the
bidder, who asked that his name not be used. "So we planned for that."


He said he had not decided yet whether to file a protest.


Protests will not be filed until bidders have been debriefed, which is expected to
happen this month. Census asked the bidders to try to resolve any disputes informally at
the agency level through discussion or alternative dispute resolution. But the vendors
have the right to ignore this request and submit their grievances to the General
Accounting Office.


Despite the threat of protests, Taylor said that so far he is happy with the contract.
As for the ConOps process, "it went very well," he said, "but it is a
pilot."



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