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Vol. LIX, No. 9
May 4, 2007

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Homegrown IT
NIH Provides Technology Across the Government

On the front page...

Who exactly are the "customers" of NIH? The American public, you might say, and the scientific research community? Sure. But many of our customers-at least for IT services and equipment-are not only within NIH and the Department of Health and Human Services, but also in the Departments of Justice and Defense, the State Department and the General Services Administration.

This is because since 1996, NIH has been one of four agencies that award Government-Wide Acquisition Contracts (GWACs), vehicles that provide numerous IT servi-ces to government organizations, large and small.


  Acquisition guru Diane Frasier  
  Acquisition guru Diane Frasier  
"It's been extremely successful at NIH," said Diane Frasier, director of the Office of Acquisition Management and Policy. "We're talking about a program that's worth about $15 billion."

The program here-managed by the NIH Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment Center (NITAAC)-started more than a decade ago after Congress passed the Clinger-Cohen Act. It gave the director of the Office of Management and Budget authority to designate executive agencies as "executive agents" that can provide government-wide IT. This means that government agencies no longer have to go to GSA to obtain the authority to acquire IT as they did prior to the Act, streamlining the process, Frasier explained.

When NIH first got involved, the plan was simply to provide contracts within the agency. "The contracts were let to meet NIH needs," Frasier said. But through word-of-mouth and what she calls "innovative marketing," NIH now has multiple customers throughout government.

GWACs have several benefits for government organizations. For one, speed of service: In the old system, Frasier noted, a customer would place an order and it could take up to a year ("6 months if you were lucky") for the contract to be awarded. Delivery of the product could be up to a year after that. Hence "delivery could be 2 years after the request," she said. "You can imagine that kind of delivery in today's [tech] environment." Now, products can be delivered in a matter of months-or less.

Not just anyone can provide GWACs. In 1996, before the contracts first started being offered, "there was a lot of concern on the Hill about the authority that had been placed in the hands of all of these federal agencies," Frasier explained. Therefore, a framework was put in place to ensure everything would be managed appropriately.

"It's a rigorous process," said NITAAC Program Director Victor Powers. "You really have to make a business case that you have the infrastructure. to manage these types of contracts effectively."

Only three agencies besides NIH can say they've been through this process and can officially provide GWACs: NASA, GSA and the Department of Commerce. Unfortunately, some agencies provide contracts that are confused with GWACs, but aren't as carefully scrutinized; this has caused some organizations to be wary of them. In fact, according to a recent story in Federal Times, sales on GWACs decreased 30 percent last year.

People should know there is a difference between GWACs and other vehicles, Frasier said, and that "we have to go through a lot of scrutiny. there are more safeguards in our process. So the thought that you could just place anything, make any award under our vehicles is [wrong]."

She explained that through GWACs, customers can be certain they are receiving high-quality technology and services. The vendors who work for NITAAC have already survived a competitive process to provide services, "so their proposals have been evaluated and [customers] know they can provide the services or equipment that's needed," Frasier said.

In addition, NITAAC keeps up to date with technology through the help of its industry advisory committee. "They have their hands right on technology because they're living with it every day," said Powers. "So they keep us abreast of how things are changing and what their customers are asking for."

NITAAC currently offers three kinds of GWACs:

. A Chief Information Officer Solutions and Partners 2 Innovations contract that provides infrastructure and information assurance, IT operations and maintenance and CIO support, among other services.

. An ImageWorld 2 New Dimensions contract, offering all necessary imaging technology for business, medical sciences and geographic information systems.

. An Electronic Commodities Store III (ECS III) contract, providing software and hardware, software documentation, hardware maintenance, warranty services and peripherals.

This gives customers a lot of variety, Powers explained, "for whatever they need."

NITAAC also makes its contracts both competitive and user-friendly by providing tools not offered by other GWACs. With the ECS III contract, for instance, NITAAC has created an electronic Request for Quote system that will allow agencies to post and receive contract bids electronically for best-value determinations.

"We wanted to make it easier for our customers and easier for us-it's a win on both sides,"

Powers said. "The customer can order and see things in the system and it guides them through the process. It's more efficient all the way around."

Frasier also believes that providing these contracts helps NIH. Certainly, she said, "it helps us get our own IT quicker." It also provides NIH with technologies and services that are specific to the work done here. ImageWorld, for example, provides any kind of image-related technology- from document-imaging to MRIs.

"These contracts specifically support the NIH medical research mission," said Powers.

NITAAC does a lot of outreach to spread the word, both externally and on campus. The group saw a lot of interest at the recent NIH Technology Expo at the Clinical Center, Powers said. "They are really impressed with the breadth of services and equipment we're offering," Frasier added.

Are people surprised to hear about it? "Some people were surprised in the very beginning that NIH had done this," she said. "But last year we celebrated our tenth anniversary with a program that's worth approximately $15 billion. I think we have a pretty good track record." NIH Record Icon

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