Growth in the Face of the Ever-Extended GWAC Timeline

Over the last 3-4 months, I’ve had countless conversations on the current state of affairs for GWACs and multi-award IDIQs. This of course included contracts such as NIH CIO-SP4 and GSA Polaris but also GSA OASIS+, VA T4NG2, and future GWACs such as NASA SEWP VI. These discussions included questions on how agencies are evolving the way they compete requirements, whether the Tiers in Best-in-Class contracts will remain, and why we’re seeing so many challenges in federal contracting. The contractor community at large is consumed with pondering why government procurement continues to face unpredictable timelines and protests.

Part of what drove my conversations about the challenges with GWACs is that many in the GovCon community are convinced you can’t grow without having the relevant GWACs. The fear is that agencies will drive all their work onto these vehicles, leaving those without those contracts without an avenue to serve their customers. That may have been the case a few years ago, but we are seeing a shift due to award timelines taking much longer for most GWACs and multi-award IDIQs.

First a brief history lesson on GWACs and multi-award IDIQs
Millenia One of the earliest iterations of a GSA “GWAC” was a contract called Millenia, and its small business companion, Millenia Lite (CACI was a SB winner back in 1999!). There were 12 awards made for each contract. Both contracts had a total period of performance of 10 years and were considered massively successful because GSA was able to consolidate their federal IT spend, meeting one of the primary objectives of the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996. How long did it take to compete and award these contracts? Roughly five months for Millenia and eight months for Millenia Lite.
Alliant I and II and 8(a) STARS As the Millenia contracts neared the end of their period of performance, GSA competed the first iteration of Alliant Full and Open and Alliant Small Business in 2006. Both took almost 2 ½ years to be awarded due to protests. Alliant 2 Unrestricted, which was originally released June 24, 2016, also took over two years from solicitation date to contract start while Alliant 2 Small Business was eventually cancelled due to multiple GAO and Court of Federal Claims protests. These longer award times are not specific just to Alliant – the first 8(a) STARS, released in August of 2003 took less than a year to compete while STARS II and III, released in July 2009 and July 2020 respectively, both took around two years from solicitation date to award.
CIO-SP NITAAC’s CIO-SP contracts have followed a similar path of extended award timelines. The first two iterations of CIO-SP contracts were awarded in 1996 and 2000, each taking less than a year from solicitation release to award. CIO-SP3 Unrestricted and SB both took around two years while the CIO-SP3 On-Ramp took over four years. As of the publish date of this article in late June of 2023, CIO-SP4 is past it’s 2nd year of the competition while still facing numerous protests.
Army ITES These extended contract award dates are not only endemic to GWACs – many agency-based IDIQs also face prolonged award cycles. If you look at the Army’s ITES contracts for both services and hardware, their award cycles started at six months for the original ITES contacts to almost four years for ITES-3H. ITES-4H had a proposal response timeframe of 14 months due to continual updates and amendments to the solicitation and is still in source selection. ITES-2S took 14 months from start to finish and ITES-3S took almost three years.
DHS EAGLE and Air Force NETCENTS DHS first competed their agency IT IDIQ back in 2005 which took around a year to compete. But EAGLE II Unrestricted and Small Business both took around three years. The Air Force had a successful IT IDIQ called NETCENTS, which they first competed in 2004 – it took roughly five months from solicitation release to award. Based on the Air Force’s growing IT needs, they expanded NETCENTS II into multiple contracts covering multiple categories, but this time the award timeline took an average of 3-5 years for award with the NETOPS Infrastructure Full and Open taking almost exactly five years from RFP release to award.
NASA SEWP The one anomaly in all of these IDIQ and GWAC contract awards also happens to be the largest and first GWAC that has ever been competed. NASA SEWP. First awarded in 1993, NASA has since awarded four additional iterations of the contract and continues to be the longest running multi-award IDIQ of its kind. Time of award for these four contracts? Approximately seven months for SEWP II, five months for SEWP III, 10 months for SEWP IV, and 20 months for SEWP V, despite facing dozens of protests and an increasing amount of competition. The original NASA SEWP had nine awardees – NASA SEWP V has 140 awardees across 200+ contracts.
Why are award timelines taking longer?

While it’s clear that procurement timelines for GWACs and multi-award IDIQs are ever-expanding, the causes are myriad and sometimes unclear. Among the reasons are these three: there are fewer procurement staff available to compete these increasingly complex contracts, the federal agencies have allocated their spend to very selective contract vehicles, and government evaluation trends have not fully matured. Clearly these issues cannot be resolved overnight.

Let’s break that down further.

1. The number of procurement staff being hired has not kept up with the increases in federal budget.

Over the last 20 years, the number of acquisition staff has continued to grow a little over 20%, while the federal budget has increased by over 40%. Further, there are three times as many in the federal acquisition workforce over the age of 60 as there are under the age of 30 – this means that within 5-10 years, we will lose a significant number of acquisition personnel due to retirement to support an ever-increasing number of contract competitions. While actions are underway to increase the acquisition workforce (such as universities implementing federal contracting courses), this will take another 10-15 years before we see a reasonable increase in acquisition staff relative to the number of contract competitions.

2. When OMB established four tiers for existing contracts or vehicles under Spend Under Management (SUM), federal agencies were directed to allocate their spend to a limited number of contract vehicles.

The top tier, Tier Three, only included those Best-in-Class Solutions, namely GWACs and other government-wide contracts like GSA OASIS. While the intent was to help decrease costs and improve buying efficiency, the government essentially created a system that provided a limited number of awards for certain companies while locking out most others for 5-10 years. This created a hyper-competitive environment where industry was inundating the government with not hundreds, but thousands of proposals. Coupling the sheer number of proposal submissions with the issue of fewer procurement staff, simply extends the timeline of these competitions.

3. Evolving evaluation techniques continue to complicate the federal acquisition process.

Government agencies are continually learning, trying, and adopting new ways to compete contracts and evaluate companies. While intentions are good, there are still vast differences in federal solicitations from agency to agency even when they are replicated (e.g., scorecards). The GovCon community is adept at identifying inconsistencies and imperfections in new procurement techniques, then protesting to seek fair remedies. These protests inevitably end up prolonging the federal acquisition lifecycle – and sometimes killing multi-award contracts that have already taken 2-3 years to compete.

What does this all mean?

Over the last 10 years, GWAC and multi-award IDIQ contract award timeframes have remained fairly consistent – they’ve taken between 2-3 years to compete and award. What’s changed is that these competitions are now more public, more significant, and more complex. Bidding on these contract vehicles now takes significant time and resources, and even when successful, they bring no guaranteed income.

What’s a government contractor to do?

Despite the award delays for the vast majority of these GWACs and IDIQs, businesses continue to grow. How is the government continuing to award these contract dollars despite the lack of readily available “Best in Class Tier Three” contracts (i.e. GWACs) or multi-award agency based IDIQs? Because the business of government must continue regardless of acquisition challenges – most agencies will ultimately use whatever contract mechanisms are at their disposal to get to the companies they know and trust.

What does all this mean? Even if you don’t have one of these mainstream IDIQs or a GWACs, don’t worry. Even if the source selection process has taken well over two years, don’t worry. And even if the government continues to press ahead with Tier Three contracts, don’t worry. If you do the necessary networking, relationship building, and capture planning, you will win the business. You may need to work with your customer to recommend the use of GSA MAS, a multi-award BPA, or an existing contract vehicle (e.g., SEWP V as a subcontractor). Ultimately the government will find a way to award work using an alternate contract vehicle or approach.

The bottom line? Go back to basics and don’t plan your growth based on just winning these GWACs and multi-award IDIQs. Focus on building your knowledge and relationships with government customers. We still advise putting your best foot forward in responding to these GWACs. But if you don’t get an award or the procurement is cancelled, you will still survive, and quite possibly thrive without it.