Why CIO-SP4 needs to take a timeout

The NIH CIO-SP3 contract is widely considered to be a success but the follow-on vehicle, CIO-SP4, has sown confusion and even anger and presents an existential threat to industry and NIH. A pause is needed before it's too late.

The federal government's need for health information technology solutions is high and is only expected to grow exponentially as we continue to recover and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But one of the government's largest buyers of commercially-available health IT solutions is struggling to determine exactly what it wants to buy and how to do the buying during a time when keeping pace with technological advances is a top priority of the administration.

Within the Department of Health and Human Services is the National Institutes of Health Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment Center, a full-service acquisition program that has been designated a federal Executive Agent, authorized by the Office of Management and Budget to administer Government-Wide Acquisition Contracts for IT acquisitions.

The next iteration of the NITAAC Chief Information Officer-Solution Partners contract vehicle has the potential to harness private sector capabilities and innovations to help government agencies capitalize on new opportunities for scientific exploration and address new challenges for human health.

The CIO-SP3 contract, through both the small business and unrestricted tracks, is widely viewed by the industry and government agencies that NITAAC serves as a successful vehicle for health-related information technology requirements.

Over the last 18 months, the Professional Services Council has provided feedback to NITAAC on numerous occasions on needed clarifications to the CIO-SP4 final request for proposals and the importance of adequate timelines for proposal submissions. PSC expressed concern that the competition was under-resourced, then asked for both another draft RFP and NITAAC to publish the OMB business case so that industry and potential offerors can review it. The OMB MAX system is not a system that industry can access.

Surely there are “commitments” from agencies to support the business case for getting OMB approval for CIO-SP4. The lack of government customer spending projections beyond an analysis of prior CIO-SP3 spending only hampers critical business decisions for companies on whether to compete for this GWAC or wait for other GWACs such as GSA Polaris, GSA Services MAC, or existing vehicles.

Or said another way: an unsuccessful CIO-SP4 GWAC is an existential threat to the long-term success of NITAAC, the broader capacity of the government acquisition workforce to award contracts in a timely manner, and jeopardizes the vitality of health IT businesses that seek to support the federal government with private sector solutions.

Unfortunately, the CIO-SP4 re-competition has been repeatedly delayed. The final RFP was planned for December 15, 2020 but was finally released on May 25, 2021. The first seven amendments published since late May 2021 have served to further compound industry concerns and have forced potential offerors to consider alternative strategies or decide not to bid on the CIO-SP4 opportunity at all.

Numerous brief extensions for major overhauls of teaming arrangements reflect NITAAC’s disregard for or misunderstanding of how industry prepares teams and solutions in today’s government technology and professional services marketplace.

It appears that private debate among the various stakeholders within the government that occurred during the fall, winter, and spring, are now being played out publicly through these numerous amendments to the final RFP. PSC encourages all government entities that touch this procurement, including the Small Business Administration, to speak with one voice through NITAAC regarding what the CIO-SP4 GWAC will be, how offers will be evaluated and how the contract will be executed.

In a June 28, letter to NITAAC leadership, PSC requested NITAAC review several decisions reflected in the final RFP as amended with consideration to applicable laws and regulations and to share promptly the rationale for those decisions with industry through procurement documentation.

In a July 22, letter to HHS and NIH acquisition leadership, PSC noted that Amendment 7 to the final RFP for CIO-SP4 likely now requires offerors to abandon or greatly alter existing partnerships / teaming structures. These changes entail a significant administrative burden for contractors. The additional two weeks provided by the amendment for bid submission (extending the due date from July 23 to August 3) is insufficient.

Industry needs NITAAC to come to a consensus, put down their pen, and ensure that interested offerors have enough, uninterrupted time to respond. Thirty days should be the minimum. Forty-five days would not be an unreasonable request given the history of this solicitation.

Amendment 8 issued on July 23 seemed to have helped many companies decide to stay in the competition. On July 29, NITAAC released proposal submission instructions and industry is interpreting this development as a signal that no more major amendments are forthcoming and the current acquisition timeline will hold.

As of this writing, there are several pre-award protests pending and proposals are due tomorrow -- Tuesday, August 3, 2021 at 2 p.m. Eastern time. 

If the last year and a half has shown us anything, we must take maximum advantage of what technical capabilities exist in the private sector and bring it to bear with government for the health and benefit of all.