GWACs: A New Measure of Respect

Special Report: GWAC Buyer's Guide

By Brian Robinson

The late comic Rodney Dangerfield might have had something to say about the current state of governmentwide acquisition contracts (GWACs). Despite their size, reach and efforts to encompass just about every need that agencies have for purchasing information technology, somehow they don’t seem to get the respect they should.

GWACs have been around since the 1990s, they’ve delivered billions of dollars’ worth of goods and services, and they are proven procurement vehicles. And yet many agencies seem to thumb their noses at them.

In the past four years there has been a marked shift to the use of agency-specific multiple-award contracts (MACs) at the expense of GWACs, particularly those run by the General Services Administration, according to market research firm Input.

“Business for GWACs has been relatively flat,” said Kevin Plexico, senior vice president for research and analysis services at Input. “Many of the larger agencies just feel they have a better fit [to their requirements] when they run procurements through their own contracts.”

And yet look at some of the recent history of GWACs.

The revenue posted by NASA’s Solutions for Enterprise-Wide Procurement (SEWP) contract tripled in just two years. GSA’s Alliant program, which has been running for only a year, snagged the Defense Department as a customer in its first week, and most recently was selected by the State Department to help it design and maintain its enterprisewide network infrastructure through the Vanguard 2.0 IT consolidation effort. Even the National Institutes of Health’s long-running Chief Information Officer-Solutions and Partners (CIO-SP) contract is bringing in a steady $1 billion a year.

You figure somebody must be doing something right.

GWACs are multiple-award, indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts that provide for a range of customizable solutions to fit most IT needs. Some, such as those run by NASA and NIH, are designed to first provide for their own agencies’ needs but have broad enough scopes that they readily fit with other agency requirements.

They cover a range of contract types such as fixed-price, cost-reimbursement, time-and-materials, and labor-hour. Because they are fully competed ahead of time, agencies need to issue only task orders or delivery orders without having to go through the lengthy competition process. Orders placed through GWACs are also not subject to the requirements of the Economy Act of 1933, unlike MACs.

The contracting agencies guarantee that the GWACs meet all government procurement regulations. Agencies ordering off them can use either standard contracts or negotiate terms to meet their own requirements. GWACs also support small-business goals, and many of the upcoming GWACs have separate contracts just for small businesses, with dollar ceilings similar to those of the main contract.

The difference between GWACs and agency-specific MACs is that agencies that run GWACs must be authorized to do so by the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Such authority so far has been given to only four agencies: GSA, which currently runs 8 active GWACs; NIH, with three; NASA; and the Environmental Protection Agency, which runs a GWAC for recycling and disposal of electronic equipment.

The big problem GWACs face in the next year or two is that government contracting overall will probably be down, said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at FedSources, which makes it a tough environment to compete in.

“Customers are looking for such things as adaptability, ease of ordering, ease of administration, low pricing and consistency with their own policies” in the contracts they use, he said. “Above all, they are looking to mitigate any of the risks associated with procurements.”

To go to the GWACs and outside their MACs, which they feel they have a large measure of control over, agencies need to feel comfortable about the level of risk they are taking, Bjorklund said. That’s probably a reason SEWP has done so well recently; the contract office there has indicated it will do whatever is necessary to lower the hurdles.

“They tell agencies that whatever they want to figure out legally they will do it, and they’ll do it overnight,” he said. “As far as risk mitigation is concerned, that certainly seems to have worked.”

GSA knows what it needs to do. It has suffered from a lingering reputation for poor customer service from the time it had the monopoly on government contracting services. GSA Administrator Martha Johnson has referred to that several times in recent presentations, and told the audience at FOSE 2010 that, when agencies were required to buy from it, GSA didn’t know “how to spell ‘marketing’.”

She now talks about agencies partnering with GSA because it can absorb some of their risk.

“We want agencies to know that we will partner with them and will advocate their position to make sure that the [GWAC vendor] is following the terms of the contract,” said Mike O’Neill, GSA’s GWAC program manager. “There’ll also be a continuous effort on our part to let people know what Alliant and our other contracts are about and how they are available for their use.”

That kind of outreach will be vital for GWACs in general because many of them are changing. Alliant and its small-business variant are follow-on contracts to GSA’s Applications ’N Support for Widely-diverse End-user Requirements (ANSWER) and Millennia and Millennia Lite contracts, for example, but they’ll differ substantially to their predecessors by being closely aligned with the requirements of the federal enterprise architecture.

GSA also expects to make awards for its Connections II contract later this year, 

a follow-on to its successful Connections I contract that provides telecommunications equipment and services for building and campus environments.

The same goes for NIH’s upcoming CIO-SP3 contract, which will be a follow-on to both the current CIO-SP2i and Image World 2 GWACs.

NIH has rolled out a completely new electronic system for managing CIO-SP2i, said Rob Coen, deputy program director of the NIH Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment Center, which will allow for easier communication with customers about the specifics of CIO-SP and the business they can do through it.

The system also will provide an opportunity for people at the center to reach out to agencies to explain to them the advantages of GWACs overall.

“That’s an important two-way street, and when I got here a year ago I said this was something we need to do,” Coen said. “Many people in government have been doing procurements a certain way for 20 years or more, and we want to show them that there’s a different way to do it that’s much faster and easier.”

Coen doesn’t agree that business for GWACs has slowed, citing the increase in SEWP’s traffic and the fact that Alliant has been gaining traction.

“I do think GWACs will be around for a while and that there is a good demand for them,” he said. “I believe there will be a great opportunity for these programs some way into the future.”

Even those who see agency-specific MACs getting more favor don’t see GWACs going away.

“GWACs are definitely valuable, particularly for those agencies that don’t have their own resources to run contracts, or if a vendor they prefer is on the GWAC,” Plexico said. “They definitely have a role to play in the market.”