ImageWorld Simplifies NIH Government Purchases

Web-based, multivendor vehicles let users compare products and buy them relatively quickly

Taking full advantage of recent changes in federal procurement rules, the National Institutes of Health on Aug. 15 awarded the five-year, $100 million ImageWorld program to 20 integrators -- the first broad-scale procurement vehicle focused specifically on imaging technology. The contract, which supplies off-the-shelf hardware, software, and solutions and services to NIH users as well as to other government agencies, has already received glowing praise from the computer industry.


Call it a sign of the times. NIH's Computer Acquisition Center represents the new breed of federal procurement program, with a sharp focus on consumerism and choice. "A federal computer user ought to be able to buy a PC just like anybody else does, by going into a store and picking out what they want from a wide selection," said Manny DeVera, the program's director. "Why should it have to be any different for them?"

A group of integrators will share the award. Electronic Data Systems Corp., BTG Inc., Lockheed Martin Corp., Digicon Corp. and Unisys Corp., as well as 13 8(a) companies, were chosen according to their past performance at providing imaging capability and their ability to deliver fresh technology at a competitive price.

Each integrator has its own team and is required to advertise its various products and services on a home page on the World Wide Web. (The ImageWorld Internet address is http://www.nih.gov/od/oirm/nihecs.html.)

Industry experts note that ImageWorld represents the new wave of multivendor contracts, offering a level playing field where vendors can go head-to-head for government business.

"They've really opened up the door so almost anybody can play and then they turn the companies loose and really let them compete," explains Bob Deller, director of market research for Global Services and Strategies.

"I think for [integrators] it opens up the ability for us to better service our customers," says Theodore Spies, marketing manager of Image Information Programs at Eastman Kodak, a subcontractor to three different integrators on the ImageWorld contract. "We can provide not only cost goods but also integration services to the federal government in much the same way that we already do for the private sector. Plus it enables both contractors and agencies to save a lot of time that would normally be spent on procurement and paperwork and to spend that time implementing the technology instead."

Solving Problems With Solutions

Such innovative thinking coincides with almost perfect timing on the part of NIH. Congress' relaxation of Federal Acquisition Regulations earlier this year, and passage of the Information Technology Management Reform Act, which took effect Aug. 8, empower federal agencies with more centralized decision making authority, permission to work more closely with industry, and the ability to buy information technology faster, with more competition, and with greater efficiency. "Procurement rules no longer emphasize the process so much as they focus on the result," DeVera says.

The ImageWorld contract takes the Computer Store concept one step further by offering not only hardware and software but solutions and services as well. DeVera and other procurement officials recognized the overwhelming need for imaging solutions at NIH and throughout the federal government to help improve efficiency and shore up budget shortfalls. Under ImageWorld, four primary functional applications for imaging technology are available: document conversion and electronic storage; electronic document management; administrative correspondence workflow; and clinical, biological and research.

What's more, the organizational structure at NIH is such that it can benefit as much as, if not more than, other agencies from a more choice-oriented procurement policy. The agency consists of more than 25 individual institutes, centers and departments, each with its own procurement office and each operating on a range of different platforms. As such, buying equipment was often a long and arduous process, and a scientist or researcher could expect to wait six weeks to six months for a new computer.

"Given the range of research and work that we do here, we have a very diverse computing environment," DeVera notes. "And so developing a central procurement vehicle was politically unviable because they all have their own preferences."

Thus, NIH has developed and delivered several online computer stores for its employees. These Web-based, multivendor contract vehicles allow government end users to see advertising copy, compare and contrast different offerings, and purchase a product relatively quickly.

The process began with the Electronic Computer Store contract, which was awarded to 17 vendors and supplies hardware and office automation software. Like other indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts, the Computer Store contained only commodity type items, but it also offered a range of different platforms, including Macintosh and a slew of IBM-compatible PCs and workstations. "The objective of this first phase was to get both industry and users to buy and sell over the Internet," DeVera says.

Since January, the Computer Store has sold more than $60 million worth of products to NIH users, as well as to employees at nearly 70 other government organizations. NIH charges a small fee to non-NIH contract buyers, which helps offset the costs required to develop and administer the program.

Partnership and Communication Among Vendors

For participating companies, NIH's attitude toward procurement is refreshing.

"NIH has been outstanding to work with," says Brendan Keegan, director of business development for the ImageWorld contract at EDS, which is also a supplier on the Electronic Computer Store contract. "They've really forged a healthy partnership between industry and government by engaging industry for input and listening to what we have to say. Under ImageWorld, for example, they were able to go from a draft RFP to the actual proposal in approximately one month, and they did that by using a decision support system in which all of industry was invited and able to give comments in real time back to NIH. So they've been very proactive in establishing the relationship."

In another unique feature, ImageWorld, unlike other IDIQ contracts, solicited statements of work and solution proposals on four very real imaging problems at NIH within the RFP. The vendors that provided the most valuable solutions will begin to receive task orders in coming weeks. "That's the first time that there's been an IDIQ contract preloaded with opportunities like that," says Spies. "Knowing that there is going to be activity right away makes the program that much more attractive to vendors."

The partnership doesn't end upon award, however. DeVera notes that NIH is just as committed to administering the contract and helping program managers manage risks, make solid purchasing decisions, and determine return on investment.

Adds Keegan, "They're very good at partnering for the benefit of all government in that they've remained very demanding on EDS and other vendors to keep our technology fresh and to keep our pricing aggressive."

Still, the straightforward and open approach offered at NIH does not translate into a loosening of standards, vendors warn. "You really have to have a very strong marketing organization and an even stronger delivery mechanism with NIH," says Keegan. "Because having one without the other will mean definite failure."

DeVera advises potential vendors to first ensure that their technology is a good fit for NIH and then clean up any of their own administrative shortcomings.

"It doesn't do us any good to reinvent and streamline our processes if participating vendors don't streamline their own contracting bureaucracies," he says. "So that's definitely something that we look at. Plus, we really look at the issue of trust. Can we trust this company to communicate any potential problems and get the job done? The old adversarial relationship between government and industry is definitely out. Partnership and communication are in."


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