Air Force tightens buying process through NETCENTS-2
New approach will improve contractor oversight, spur competition
Effective May 1, Maj. Gen. Wendy Masiello was named deputy assistant secretary for contracting at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition in Washington, D.C. She is responsible for all aspects of contracting that relate to the acquisition of weapons systems, logistics, and operational and contingency support for the Air Force.
Before her new assignment, she was program executive officer for combat and mission support for about three and a half years, with responsibility for the Network Centric Solutions-2 (NETCENTS-2) multibillion-dollar acquisition contract for network communications equipment, among other programs.
She spoke recently with Defense Systems Editor-in-Chief Barry Rosenberg about NETCENTS-2 and new strategies for contracting.
DS: Let’s start with NETCENTS-2 and then talk about your new position. How does NETCENTS-2 differ from the first NETCENTS contract vehicle?
Masiello: NETCENTS-2 is more of a strategic ordering vehicle. NETCENTS was eight contracts — some went to large businesses, some went to small— to do IT solutions, whether it was a help-desk capability or application development. NETCENTS-2 pushed that thought process out and broke it up into six different contractor vehicles that allowed us to get to more contractors and more small businesses.
The concept is to pre-vet the contractors that will be providing IT solutions or products to the Air Force so we can manage those contractors like a program. And when information assurance issues [arise] and we need to address certain issues, we know who our primary contractors are.
DS: So then anybody in the Air Force who needs to purchase net-centric-related hardware buys from these pre-validated vendors. And they compete on price?
Masiello: Correct. Though it could also be technical solutions because one of the wedges of NETCENTS is the product.
Masiello: The umbrella term is NETCENTS-2, but there are different wedges under that umbrella. One of the wedges is for product solutions, and that’s primarily commercial off-the-shelf activity. So the products are commercial products. That is currently in source selection, and we’ll have seven to 10 contractors potentially on that particular suite. And then our customers will compete for product price.
Another wedge is already available to our customers, and that is our enterprise solutions — Enterprise Integration and Service Management. Those are our strategic vehicles. There’s a very strict organizational conflict of interest clause on that one because the people we hire to do that enterprise solution advice for the government most likely would not be able to compete for implementing the solution. In a way, they [act as advisers] like the Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, while the government rebuilds that IT planning and strategic vision and its organic workforce.
DS: What other wedges are in competition?
Masiello: [Network operations] is another. We have two parts to that. We have a net ops that will be a full and open competition, and then we’ll have a small-business companion. We are encouraging small businesses because our small businesses grow pretty rapidly in this environment. We’ll allow businesses that grow and move out of the small-business category to automatically roll up to the full and open competition for a couple of years based on their past performance as a small business. That allows them to compete for individual tasks for three years instead of the whole [contract vehicle] before they have to go back to full and open competition.
Another part that we have currently in source selection is application services and developers. That is a full and open competition, and a small-business companion. The last part is IT professional services and engineering services. That’s the smaller businesses that support our local installations and bases. That is actually going to be service-disabled, vet-satisfied.
DS: Which requests for proposals are still to be released?
Masiello: The only one that has not yet been issued is the IT advisory and assistance, the last one I mentioned. All the others are at some phase in the source-selection process.
DS: You must be happy with that because of the earlier delays in getting out those RFPs. What was behind some of those delays?
Masiello: I’ll be happy to talk about that because this is the first time that the Air Force is really developing a strategic solution for how we want to do IT. Our former NETCENTS was really an acquisition initiative, but as we looked at NETCENTS-2, we teamed completely with our IT owners: the CIO, Lt. Gen. William Lord and his crew. We teamed with them in developing the RFPs, the source selection decision criteria and what the performance work statements should look like. And they are partnering with us throughout the source selection decision process. And at the end, it becomes the Air Force’s IT tool for managing the contractors that will be supporting us in our IT needs across the Air Force.
It also gives exposure to the [communications] guys and the IT guys who use these contractors as they participate in the source selections. They truly see how contractors respond to our solicitations, so they have a sense of why the contractors are chosen. And they then become partners with us in ensuring that we stay within the construct of the NETCENTS vehicle.
DS: What, in essence, are vendors being told through these RFPs that they need to do differently compared to the original NETCENTS?
Masiello: The idea going in is to use more service-oriented architecture so that when [a vendor] defines solutions for us they don’t own us for the rest of our lives, and that we are allowed to do other developments for spirals through common interfaces. So that was one of the positions going in on how to implement the work that’s in place.
The other is a bit stricter organizational conflict of interest requirements, as I mentioned to you. So it will be less likely that contractors will come in and provide us advice on how our system or an interface or enterprise solution would look, and then also be able to go execute it. That separates the design from the execution, builds price efficiencies and allows for competition that isn’t skewed towards the originator of the idea.
DS: Regarding your new position as the head of contracting within Air Force acquisitions, what are your near-term targets?
Masiello: I mentioned this a little bit earlier, but I think it bears repeating that under our better buying practices we need to relearn some skills that have perhaps atrophied over the years. And that includes understanding how to implement incentive structures in our contracts, digging into the actual prices that we are paying for weapon systems or services with more knowledge and understanding, and building that type of expertise and experience into the workforce. We have a young workforce. They are less experienced and less skilled, and many of their seniors who are coaching them don’t have those incentive experiences either, so this is a whole workforce educational opportunity.
The other thing that’s really important for us in Air Force contracting is the operational tempo that we’re operating under, given that our military members represent about 70 percent of the contingency contracting workforce over in theater. It’s a huge drain and strain on the workforce, and figuring out how to better balance that, manage it and work with the other services to increase the share of that workload is another big effort that I am focusing on. Not that it hasn’t been done in the past, but it’s just a continued effort.