Bidders are scratching their heads over developments in a major NIH acquisition program

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A last-minute modification to the request for proposals for a signature governmentwide acquisition contract has left industry a little shellshocked. We’re talking about the long-awaited CIO-SP4 program from the NIH Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment Center. NITAAC officials seemed to neutralized small business partnerships many would-be prime bidders had developed. Stephanie Kostro, executive vice president for policy at the Professional Services Council, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin with some reaction.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Stephanie, good to have you on.

Stephanie Kostro: Thanks so much for asking me. All right.

Tom Temin: All right, so what does it look like they have done here with CIO-SP? And let’s start with that, and then we’ll see what industry thinks of all of this.

Stephanie Kostro: Sure. So it’s probably useful just to ground ourselves in sort of when the RFP came out and what it means for industry. And that is the final request for proposals came out on May 25, with the deadline of June 28. And that’s what industry was planning all along to submit their offers for. That said, this has been a long, drawn out process where there were draft RFPs, and a lot of input from industry, lots of questions, and not as many answers as there were questions and so, NITAAC felt it necessary to put out an amendment just last week, on the 22nd. This was amendment three to the RFP. And it seems that they went in a different direction. The services community that would support this governmentwide contract vehicle, really was focused on not having any surprises in the final RFP. And the easiest way to introduce surprises is to introduce multiple amendments. And that’s exactly what NITAAC did. This is a $50 billion opportunity. So a whole range of companies were interested. And they felt a little bit, not a little bit, quite a bit taken by surprise by these amendments, and happy to go into further detail. But I just wanted to provide a little bit of background for folks who aren’t as familiar as those of us steeped in it.

Tom Temin: Sure. Well, what did the amendments do relative to what people might have been assuming they could safely or confidently bid in the first place?

Stephanie Kostro: So all up until last week, there were discussions about what would be submissable for past performance. And it was all along only the the prime contractor, or the offer trying to be the prime contractor, could submit their past performance. And that really structured the way folks were approaching this opportunity. They weren’t doing a lot of joint ventures or teaming arrangements. Because a lot of times if you’re a small business, how you get relevant past performance is to a team with folks who round out your offer. And that was not done until amendment three came out. And then so folks started going how are we going to be structuring this? And to be honest, NITAAC did add 10 days to the proposal due date, and that went from June 28 until July 8, but to get those arrangements in place takes far longer than that. There are other changes in that they wanted people to do a project descriptions. Now if you fill out a past performance questionnaire, and this is really into the weeds, but sort of where those policy wonks among us live, you’re using past performance from government customers. If you change those past performance questionnaires, or you answered the information or provide the information in a different way, you often have to go get your original government customer to sign off on it, you need approval from them. And that definitely does not take just 10 days, and in some cases, it can take up to a month. And so it was a truly inadequate amount of time provided for this extension.

Tom Temin: But getting to the main point though, the removal of some of the supplier, partner past performance could harm small business, in your opinion, as well as louse up what you had bid after all of this time had passed.

Stephanie Kostro: When you have an RFP that comes out as final on May 25 and then on June 22, provide amendment three and on June 24, provide an amendment four, you’re changing the goal line for a lot of these companies, and who have used the past interactions over the last year or so with NITAAC in the draft RFP stage of the game to really structure their approach, and then basically a few days before the due date, you tell them that they no longer have to be saddled with that approach, they could actually change it up a bit, that is not the consistency that contractors need and look for from a government customer.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Stephanie Kostro, she’s executive vice president for policy at the Professional Services Council. And it sounds like they either overlook something and discovered it at the last minute or had some kind of external input they didn’t expect, because it’s not as if CIO-SP hasn’t been expected for years now. CIO-SP number three, the one that this will follow on, has been in effect for what a decade?

Stephanie Kostro: And so that’s why there was so much industry chatter and interest in moving forward with CIO-SP4. People were excited to have the final RFP come out, but it was really a surprise in many ways. One additional aspect that I think listeners might be interested in is that during a Q&A session, prospective vendors or prospective offers submit questions to a government customer, and they hopefully will get a response. What NITAAC did in mitting responses is they combined questions. So if you’re a prospective offer, and you’re looking for an answer to your question, it’s combined with another company’s question, it may not be answered fully, it may not be answered at all but NITAAC thinks it was. And so there was a lot of confusion. And the final point I would make is that the RFP itself, even with all of these amendments, remains internally inconsistent regarding requirements. What’s allowable, what’s not. We at PSC take it very seriously, especially since it’s a range of companies small, medium, large, and $50 billion worth of business, which is huge. We are going to be submitting a letter to NITAAC requesting a further extension for at least until the end of July at the earliest so that folks can can answer, questions about the inconsistencies on the NITAAC or put together the proposal that will put contractors best foot forward.

Tom Temin: Sure, they do like lousing up long holiday weekends, don’t they?

Stephanie Kostro: Yeah, the Fourth of July is coming up, this was released right before Memorial Day. At the end of the day, if it’s a fair, competitive, open process, contractors will do whatever they need to do to win business for their employees and for their companies. But at some point, NITAAC has to put their pencils down, make sure that we all have and know and understand the final final final requirements and what the instructions are. But it helps to be consistent. And right now, I have a lot of questions about what’s going on and CIO-SP4.

Tom Temin: Okay. And while we have you I wanted to ask you about a couple of other topics. Now there is an alleged infrastructure deal in the Senate. And it’s sort of off again on again, well, I’m not gonna sign that unless you do this. Well, no, I’ll sign it anyway. The president says these things change by the hour. But the scope of that deal as it stands, is anything in that for federal services contractors?

Stephanie Kostro: There is something in there for federal services contractors. As listeners may remember, this is the infrastructure deal, part of the American Jobs Plan Act, and it will run just under $1 trillion dollars. There certainly services contract money in that, it’s not just bridges and roads, it’s also IT infrastructure, broadband. So, the definition of infrastructure historically has meant physical things you can see and touch and ride on, so to speak. But right now, it’s also encompassing IT pieces and broadband. And so services contractors care very deeply about what happens on the Hill this week.

Tom Temin: Yes, because even things as passive looking as a road or a bridge, they are increasingly smart, and wired and sensing and internet of things and all of this jazz, which is software and services to develop that capability pretty much, true?

Stephanie Kostro: That’s true, although I might quibble over the the word smart. I don’t know how smart the roads gonna be at some point. But at some level, it is wired. And if you’re looking at toll roads or things along those lines, it certainly is important for our IT providers to get out there and roll up their sleeves and get a piece of this infrastructure contracting money that will help Americans countrywide.

Tom Temin: Sure, and even the smartest road can’t do anything about the idiots driving on it.

Stephanie Kostro: No comment on that.

Tom Temin: All right. Stephanie Kostro is executive vice president for policy at the Professional Services Council. As always, thanks so much.

Stephanie Kostro: Thanks, Tom, for having me.

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