Air Force and NetCents: Gutless or incompetent?

Plenty of questions were raised when the Air Force quickly backed away from its $6.9 billion NetCents II product awards in the face of a slew of protests. Mainly, what's going on?

UPDATED: This blog has been updated to include the correct number of bid protests filed. Thanks to a reader who pointed out the mistake. The correct number is 11.

I wore my reporter's hat yesterday as I worked on the Air Force NetCents II story.

First, it was about protests being filed and then it quickly morphed into the Air Force deciding to rethink its award decisions.

I wrote those stories as objectively as I could. Pretty much just the facts. Unfortunately, the Air Force isn’t very forthcoming with me on why it pulled back just weeks after making the awards. The story at this stage doesn’t offer as much insight as I’d like.

But today as I mull the story over in my head, I’m putting on my other hat: my judgmental, soapbox hat. My wife loves that hat. It always makes me a little cranky.

In my mind there are two possible scenarios that led to the Air Force’s decision, both of which make the service look bad.

Scenario 1: The Air Force is gutless and caved to the pressure of having to defend its award decision when 11 companies filed bid protests.

Scenario 2: The Air Force is incompetent because its award decision couldn’t survive the scrutiny of 11 bid protests.

So now the Air Force is reopening discussions with the bidders and allowing them to submit another round of final proposal revisions.

Now, I’m not a contract or acquisition specialist, but my understanding is that the 11 losing bidders went through a debriefing where the Air Force explained why they lost and why the nine winners won. Based on that debrief, the losing bidders filed their protests and now get a second chance. The original winners are also thrown back into the competitive mix.

But doesn’t that give the protestors an advantage over the winners because they know why they lost and why the winners won?

And here is the cranky side of my soapbox hat:

This is a $6.9 billion contract that has had some delays already and is part of a $22 billion program for goods and services. It’s the Air Force’s biggest and most important IT contract and is a follow-on to the very successful NetCents I.

You’d think that the Air Force would have made sure the reasoning behind its award decisions was bullet proof. Or at least bullet proof enough to go through the GAO review process. Shouldn’t you make awards on a contract this big and this important with the confidence that you can withstand a protest?

Protests have become so commonplace that they seem to be part of company growth strategies. A case like this makes me think that a smart company should protest any losing bid because you’ll automatically get an extra shot.

I don’t agree with some commenters who called the protesters cry babies. No, sir, they aren’t. They are doing what’s necessary to hang onto business.

So if that’s not cranky enough for you, I’ll lay something else out there.

Should the Air Force fire whoever was in charge of making the bid decisions or ran the evaluation team? Shouldn’t someone be held accountable for fouling up a $6.9 billion contract?

What does this mean for the rest of the NetCents II program? More protests and more delays, I guess.

Maybe I’m being too judgmental without knowing all the facts. But the facts that I do know sure don’t look good for the Air Force.

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