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Mitchell Ross

Director, Acquisition and Grants Office, NOAA

Apr. 21, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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Federal Times Interview of NOAA Director of Acquis
NOAA Director of Acquisitions and Grants Mitchell Ross discusses the significant strategic sourcing initiatives within the agency. (Johnny Bivera)

One of the biggest procurement programs underway today is happening at the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The Professional and Technical Support Services Contract Vehicle, better known as Pro-Tech, is slated to go out for solicitation this year and be awarded next year for a five-year, $3 billion to $5 billion program. It will deliver a wide array of specialty services in the categories of ocean and coastal services, satellite/observing systems services, fisheries, meteorological services and enterprise operations.

Overseeing the program — as well as all procurement and grant activity at NOAA — is Mitchell Ross, the director of NOAA’s Acquisition and Grants Office, who spoke to Federal Times Editor Steve Watkins at his Silver Spring, Md., office. Ross, who began his federal career in 1978 as a member of the first class of Presidential Management Interns, said Pro-Tech represents a significant strategic sourcing initiative within NOAA. Following are edited excerpts.

What is interesting to me about Pro-Tech is that it’s addressing a new requirement for technical professional support services. What is new about this program?

Pro-Tech, which stands for Professional and Technical Services, is the second in our large strategic sourcing initiative. We launched a strategic sourcing initiative on behalf of NOAA several years ago. Our first program called NOAALink was our attempt to standardize and rationalize our information technology infrastructure, and has been very successful for us and we are pleased with it. We are going to apply the lessons learned from that first one to Pro-Tech, which is aimed at the professional and technical services that we buy and have been buying for years on behalf of NOAA across the entire enterprise. As a strategic sourcing initiative, Pro-Tech is aimed at, of course, saving money on behalf of our taxpaying public, but it is also aimed at making us more effective and more efficient in the delivery of services.

When we first embarked on the spend analysis that led to our strategic sourcing initiative, what we found is that we had thousands and thousands of transactions that were duplicative for services and commodities that we were spending far too much money putting out very small dollar value contracts. Also, we were establishing good relationships with suppliers that should become partners for us because we were engaged in so much turnover of transaction activity. Pro-Tech is part of that strategic sourcing plan that many agencies want to create effectiveness and efficiency, and we do expect it to be on the order of $3 to $5 billion dollars over the five-year life that we will initially start with.

Your website says the RFP is due out this spring and then awards are due in another year from now. Perhaps you can give us an update.

The timeline has certainly taken longer than we wanted. It has been a real struggle for us to do all of the analytical work to get to where we are right now. We feel very comfortable that we have the right structure, and again we applied the lessons learned from the NOAALink program. What we will be doing is completing our acquisition planning probably this spring. We hope to have a solicitation out this fiscal year. We will use a draft as industry has requested and we think it makes good business sense to issue a draft solicitation, a draft RFP. Then we anticipate making multiple awards next fiscal year. It will be FY15 awards that we will be looking for.

A draft RFP sometime this fiscal year. So will it be later this fiscal year or sooner?

Probably later this fiscal year than sooner because we are still involved in the acquisition planning. The final RFP will also be this fiscal year.

About how many awards are you expecting?

The solicitation will describe the Pro-Tech program as being divided up into multiple domains. We will have a weather domain, an ocean domain, a fisheries domain, a satellite domain and an enterprise domain. There will be multiple awards in each of those five domains. There will be sizable number of contracts awarded.

Understanding there will be multiple awards in each domain, can you get into the numbers at this point?

We are not sure what the numbers will be right now. We want to have a sufficient number of awards that will allow us the opportunity to have a full capability set from industry.

Do you have a rough sense of how much will be awarded to the small business primes versus large companies?

We do not have any dollar figure that we anticipate right now, but looking back historically based on spend analysis, we think that roughly half of the dollars that were previously devoted to this type of work can be devoted to small business. We hope to at least do that much going forward as measured by dollars.

You mentioned that a reason for the delays that you’ve experienced were struggles with the analytics on this. Can you elaborate a little bit on that?

When we started out with our spend analysis back in fiscal year 2009, we were looking at 17,000 transactions [a year] to obligate $1.2 billion in acquisition. What we found is that is an average dollar value below $100,000 per transaction. What we needed to do in order to rationalize our program to comply with our budget constraints and also to create a little more effective service delivery for our clients, was reduce that number of transactions. We steadily have been reducing that number so that last year we reduced that 17,000 down to twelve-and-a-half thousand. Now we have a smaller number of transactions, we have a smaller workforce given the budget constraints that we have and with a smaller number of transactions were able to meet our clients need with that smaller workforce that we are faced with. Had we not embarked on strategic sourcing we would not have had a prayer of keeping pace with the budget constraints that we face.

You said the primary mission of this program is to save money. What are your expectations in terms of what this is going to do in terms of your acquisition spend going forward?

Our savings target is 20 percent or greater and we have seen that already on NOAALink so we think that is a reasonable expectation to achieve that 20 percent dollar savings. Now that does not include what is really an important component of the savings, which is the internal savings that we are able to achieve. Again, when you are processing 17,000 transactions, the internal cost to the government, the government personnel, the labor, that is a real cost as well. As our budgets are constrained because of the tightness of budgets in the federal government everywhere, we had really no choice to keep up the high level of service we had but to go to a strategic sourcing approach. The workforce is no larger today in NOAA acquisition as it was four years ago and yet we are doing more with less so to speak. That 12,500 transactions gives the folks that we have time to pay attention to better contract management, requirements, definition and validation, independent government cost estimating, contract close out, all of those things that as you become tighter and tighter and the number of people you have available to you get neglect. This was a survival tactic as much as anything else.

There are numerous contracting vehicles that exist for federal agencies. On one hand, you have organizations like GSA and the GWAC programs looking to recruit more business from the federal customer base. And then on the other hand you have agencies such as NOAA doing their own strategic sourcing analysis and coming to the conclusion it really makes sense for us not to take this distributed approach that we are for this niche of support services. It seems like there are a few trends that are working at odds here.

There are a few trends working at odds. It has been around for more than 20 years and it is a good tension that exists. It reminds that it is probably 20 or more years ago that the so-called Mayflower compact was created. Under the Mayflower compact as it was called, there was agreement that we would have a certain number of government-wide acquisition contracts available. That was the early-on attempt to deal with this problem that you are raising about what is the role of GSA.

Where we are today, I think, is about right. I think today we do have a fair number of GWACs. We do have GSA in a reinvigorated mode doing its job of creating the federal acquisition service with a schedules program, which I think is terrific and serves us well. And we would be distraught if they were gone. I think many of the GWACs that are out there that have been created by some of the agencies, NASA SEWP for instance, are terrific vehicles that we rely on. I think the government is doing a pretty good job now of balancing that tension that exists.

In our case for Pro-Tech, there is nothing that meets our needs out there because of the way we go to market. Those domains that we have created that I described to you earlier in Pro-Tech are not met by any other vehicle.■

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