A shared services acquisition office at Health and Human Services Department is building a contract vehicle for emerging technologies that it hopes one day will be able to compete with other massive contracts in the governmentwide acquisition contract, or GWAC, space.
The department’s Program Support Center is in the process of soliciting bids for its new Intelligence Automation/Artificial Intelligence, or IAAI, contract, a vehicle the agency expects will generate up to $49 million over five years.
Initially, the contract will be available to HHS components looking for cutting-edge technologies. But program officials have much bigger designs for the vehicle.
“We’re hoping to get a very large number of vendors who can provide that catalog of services, not just for me at Buy Smarter, but the contract is designed so we can buy and scale across HHS and, potentially, across the government space,” Lori Ruderman, who leads the HHS Buy Smarter initiative and is a senior adviser at the Program Support Center, said Tuesday during a panel discussion at the AFCEA Bethesda Health IT Summit.
“This is a foundational contract,” she continued. “Ultimately, they want to establish a GWAC, a much larger vehicle. This is just a jumping off point.”
Ruderman said the support center plans to go slow at first to ensure they’ve worked out all the kinks before going governmentwide.
“They want to get some lessons learned before they go before [the Office of Management and Budget’s MAX.gov shared services portal] and do all the stuff for a GWAC,” she said. “This is their first foray into it and Buy Smarter is the first groups that will be using this contract.”
Outside of the General Services Administration—which has a number of GWACs, as per its mission to provide acquisition services to the entire government—there are only two major civilian GWAC programs: NASA’s Solutions for Enterprisewide Procurement, or SEWP, and the National Institutes of Health Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment Center, or NITAAC.
NITAAC, which includes three contract vehicles—CIO-CS, CIO-SP3 and CIO-SP3 Small Business—has carved out a space in the GWAC world by offering products and services with a health IT bent, helping it compete with the broad range of offerings from GSA and the large number of vendors on SEWP.
But the GWAC envisioned by the Program Support Center would not be angling for NITAAC’s space, Ruderman said. Instead, the vehicle will look to compete by offering access to the latest cutting-edge technologies.
“Because [the Program Support Center is] an assisted acquisition organization, they were getting a lot of demand from their customers looking for these new technologies,” she said. “At an industry day back in March, we found the field is really wide open right now and things are changing so fast, contracts become out of date even before we get things awarded. So, it’s an opportunity to really freshen it up and try something new.”
That said, Ruderman was quick to defend NITAAC’s virtues.
“The first technology I used went through NITAAC and I had a very good success with that. So, we’re not saying that NITAAC isn’t an awesome vehicle,” she said. “But some of these new vendors, this is their first time working in the federal space and we needed to hold their hands a little bit and help get a vendor pool that can really handle it.”
That pool will offer a “catalog of emerging technologies” centered around robotic process automation, or RPA, and products that are artificial intelligence-adjacent, if not the real thing.
“When we say ‘artificial intelligence,’ we’re using the term very broadly,” Ruderman said. “What we’re expecting is a combination of lots of other components like machine learning, natural language processing, big data analytics—all working together to take our thinking to the next level.”
Bids were originally due Wednesday, however, earlier this week the deadline was extended to Feb. 8.