Over the last 16 years, staff members of the commercial data provider where I work have spoken with more than 30,000 military and government contractors. This experience has given our firm, which is focused on solving supply problems for the U.S. military, a unique insight into the plight of people seeking products and services. The bulk of our traffic can be separated into two major categories:
Surprisingly, many items sought are common, everyday things. Wire cutters, fire safety equipment, pulleys, antennae, screwdrivers and laptops are examples. Of course, people also search for equipment designed to meet needs that are specific to the military. One of my favorites is: “rocket motor, trajectory divergence” (National Stock Number [nsn]): 1377-01-256-1971), which is used in ejector seats. We recently have seen a lot of bid activity for FSC 1377, cartridge and propellant devices.
The job of a program manager (PM) involves managing cost, schedule, performance and risk. Efficient acquisition of goods and services is essential to maintaining this balance. I believe that the PM’s job was best described in A Guide for DoD Program Managers written by William T. Cooley and Brian C. Ruhm and published by the Defense Acquisition University in 2015:
“Eliminating or correcting root causes that will otherwise result in perturbations to the cost, schedule, or performance.”
Time and time again we see people without the proper tools who are trying to find something. They usually find us through a Google search for a contract or item name, indicating that they have exhausted the government-provided tools.
A ground test of the ejection seat manufactured by Martin-Baker for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Photo courtesy of Martin-Baker Manufacturing.
More Than Just Contracting
Buyers and contracting officers are not the only ones searching for parts. Often it’s someone who needs a particular part or tool in order to complete a job. At the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida, we met with a fabricator who said that he spends more than half of his time searching for things instead of fabricating. He was trying to locate a specialized pulley that could work with polyethylene rope. Lack of that pulley was preventing him from completing a project. Everyone we met at Jacksonville had at least one item she or he was unable to source.
Without proper tools or training, people can spend many frustrating hours doing things to support their jobs. This directly affects schedule and program performance. With a little training and the right tools, PMs can locate efficient personnel in many departments who can help them quickly find what they need. Perhaps programs could offer specialized assistance in locating commercial off-the-shelf items so that end users can spend more time working and less time searching.
Choosing the Right Tools
The government provides a number of free services to aid acquisition. The System Acquisition Management database includes every defense contractor registered to sell to the government. The Federal Logistics Information Service (FLIS) Program has a reference system for parts numbers. The Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS), although incomplete, provides a basic view of government contracting activity.
On the other hand are commercial providers who add value to the government offerings. For example, FPDS data are reported voluntarily and not as a requirement. Huge gaps can be seen when FPDS information is compared to a complete Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) procurement history. Commercial data providers spend time filling these gaps, as well as cleaning out errors from the data. DLA often moves decimal places when unit pricing of its data exports.
Commercial services also consolidate the data from many government databases. These data can be displayed together on a single page, instead of having to search a half-dozen databases to find an answer. This saves time and helps maintain program schedules.
Simple Tips for Better Sourcing
We will cover some techniques and common mistakes that we have encountered when helping people source parts and services. These can prove helpful for managers,contracting personnel and end users.
Search Simple: Instead of searching, “12-inch steel mounting bracket,” start with the word “bracket.” Government nomenclature is in reverse order, with the most broad category first. A mounting bracket is categorized as ”bracket, mounting.” If there is no specific information available on the item (i.e., NSN, part number, military specification [mil-spec]), an item name search for “bracket” is a good starting point.
Use Mil-Specs: The government maintains a free database of all current and historical military specifications, called ASSIST. The Master Cross Reference Database (MCRD) is part of FLIS. For any item name in FLIS that has a corresponding mil-spec, the mil-spec document ID will be listed in the part number cross reference. Sometimes mil-specs include part numbers, stock numbers and similar items that can be a good starting point for locating a source.
Prior Solicitations: Search historical solicitations for keywords relating to the item. Not all agencies release detailed procurement history. Prior solicitations offer more detail than procurement history can provide. Salient characteristics or specification numbers are included in the solicitation and can help locate an item.
Colloquial Names: Common names and brand names may not yield any results. As an example, a client was searching for “hard hat” and could not find any procurement history. “Hard hat” is a popular name for the DoD nomenclature “helmet, safety.”
Proper Fields: It may seem obvious, but we find many people put a part number in the NSN field. Even though the relevant data might be in our system, it is missed due to a simple error. Try to utilize multi-database, intelligent searches whenever possible to avoid this.
GSA, AbilityOne, Unicor: As required by Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) 8.4, 8.6, and 8.7, an item or service provided under these programs should be sourced through the aforementioned channels. We have a number of commercial clients with thousands of items in their catalogs under AbilityOne and the General Services Administration or GSA. Because the FAR requires the use of these programs where available, a formal procurement history may be lacking. Always check these sources before buying.
DoD Emall and Credit Card: Full Text search DoD Emall and credit card transactions for relevant item names and keywords. Many items that fall below the micro purchase threshold will not appear in the DLA history if they are purchased through Emall or by use of a card.
Technical Characteristics: Once you have narrowed your search to a specific item name, check the technical characteristics for item details. These will include all salient characteristics, which may include dimensions, materials, next higher assembly, voltage output, color, among others. The Item Name provides a broad, general description, while the technical characteristics detail the item’s specific properties.
Procurement History: Conduct a key-word search of the all agencies’ history to locate sources that previously supplied the item to the military. History often will include pricing information in order to support cost justification. If they are available, always search the original, signed award documents that include information such as buyer names, contact information and shipping destinations. This information is omitted from the feeds available directly from the government. Procurement history also includes the contractor Commercial and Government Entity (CAGE) code, which can be used to locate a vendor’s website or contact information.
The Contractor’s Viewpoint
Working with government and contractors, we get to see both sides of the procurement process. Contractors utilize us to locate solicitations and associated data—including technical characteristics and past pricing. We regularly speak with staff members of contractor organizations, ranging from very large firms to simple two-person shops. Below are a few issues that we regularly encounter.
Better Technical Data: Many qualified vendors scour the Internet for opportunities to sell or repair parts to the military. The single most significant factor in increasing competition is providing vendors with quality technical data from the military. PMs are encouraged to participate in the data management process. I cannot stress how important this is to vendors trying to compete on contracts for obsolete systems. The biggest complaint from contractors is the lack of sufficient documentation on systems.
Access to Pricing Data: Some agencies will not release line-item pricing. This especially seems to be the case with the U.S. Navy and the Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, which intentionally omit key information from all Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests—including quantity and unit price. The agencies cite Exemption 4 of FOIA rules, which protects “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a person [information that is] privileged or confidential.” There has been an ongoing battle between the attorneys for large contractors and the U.S. military regarding this information. There were even attempts to clarify the issue in defense authorization bills, to require that this information be released. To date, these agencies still omit unit price and quantity from their responses to our FOIA requests. Both contractors and military need to know what items cost in order to work effectively.
Supply affects every part of a program, regardless of size. From planning through support, supply is a key aspect of program management. Sourcing is not limited to the formal contracting process, as people throughout all areas of government need to locate products and services to complete their job. With the proper tools and training, sourcing can be more effective, thereby reducing wasted time.
Tom Gerbe is a defense industry analyst for BidLink.net, a provider of information to defense contractors and the U.S. military. BidLink.net provides tools and training to streamline sourcing and procurement.
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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