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The massive IT services contract known as CIO-SP4 will finally reach the end of the beginning today.
After nearly a year of delays and growing industry frustrations, the NIH IT Acquisition and Assessment Center (NITAAC) will receive best and final offers from contractors on Friday.
Ricky Clark, the deputy director of NITAAC, said his organization has heard and continues to listen to vendors about their frustrations with the acquisition process, and continually is trying to make the procurement better.
“We’re always trying to be responsive to industry. If you based it on the number of protests that we’ve had and the outcome of those protests, there’s some validity [to those feelings of frustrations] to how the solicitation was put together,” Clark said in an exclusive interview with Federal News Network. “My message to industry would be to be patient, I am confident that the final product that we’ve received will be one that we’ll be very proud of. I think that some of the consternation is not unwarranted. But I think that because of the scope of this requirement, it is a work in progress and there are some things that we have to work through to get to the final product. I am very, very confident that the final product will be something that’s notable and something we can all look back on and be very proud of.”
Getting to that final product, however, has been a slog to say the least.
NITAAC has faced 24 protests, winning 23 of them, and has issued 16 amendments to the solicitation over the last 11 months.
Industry associations have regularly expressed concerns to NITAAC on everything from its approach of combining two contracts — CIO-SP3 had one for small firms and one unrestricted — into one contract to the joint venture and teaming requirements to most recently the problematic bid submission portal.
For many firms, particularly small ones, frustrations over the entire CIO-SP4 effort boiled over when NITAAC outlined the requirement to submit best and final bids through the portal, only to have the site routinely struggle to save documents and have painfully slow load times. Then NITAAC issued what likely will be the final amendment to the solicitation, once again changing the requirements telling vendors they shouldn’t use the portal to submit their bids and if the changes to the mentor-protégé requirements didn’t impact them, contractors could resubmit their bids from August.
Goal of portal was transparency
While Clark said he couldn’t offer too many comments about the portal situation, he said NITAAC decided to give vendors other options to submit proposals after listening to their concerns.
“I think the purpose of the proposal tools was visibility, transparency and obviously, to ensure that all offers were treated equitably. We wanted it to be a fast and efficient and process that was traceable and allow us an opportunity to go back take a look some things to make sure that they were fair across the board,” Clark said. “The decision to stop using it was us being responsive to industry. We received firsthand some of the feedback from the on the offers via email. We read the press. We got a feel for what industry is going through. Our entire purpose was to be responsive to industry.”
NITAAC awarded the contract for the bid submission portal through the 8(a) program to Slyger, which brought on Innovo as a subcontractor to provide the iNsight tool.
Innovo. Clark said the contract was for nine months with two six-month options. He declined to say how much the contract was worth.
“There’s not a lot I can say because this is an ongoing action. So I will say there will be some additional information available in the very, very near future,” Clark said about the portal contract.
Clark said throughout the entire CIO-SP4 process, NITAAC tried to be responsive to its customers and provide the best service possible. At the same time, he said NITAAC doesn’t live in a vacuum either.
“If industry has a concern, it has to be our concern. We heard the chatter. We felt the pain because we’ve gone through the exact same thing. It’s not just them,” he said. “So for us seeing the difficulties, seeing some of the technical challenges that were being experienced, we had to take a step in the right direction to make things easier for offers.”
CIO-SP4 awards by November
Clark said NITAAC plans to make awards by CIO-SP4 by November. NITAAC also plans to extend the current CIO-SP3 contracts until November as well, but has left the door open to extend those contracts a full year if necessary.
Clark didn’t say how many awards NITAAC was looking to make in November. Previously, NITAAC said it expected to make around 450 awards.
As for NITAAC’s message to industry, Clark said, “NITAAC is not taking them for granted, and what we’re doing everything we can to be responsive to the customer. After every protest that we received, we did a 360 degree review of it, and we tried to be as responsive as we could be to the needs of the customer. So that is why we’re here, again, to extend our apologies to some of the inconveniences that our offers have been subjected to for this solicitation, but we’re very encouraged and we will have an award in place by Nov. 1. I’m certain that the contract holders as well as industry in general will be very receptive to the next iteration of CIO-SP4.”