A new program at NASA aims to make it easier for federal technology buyers to know when vendors are specifically authorized to resell certain products.
Last week, NASA unveiled the new database for the Solutions for Enterprise-Wide Procurement governmentwide contracting vehicle, which has agreements with more than 5,000 original equipment manufacturers and technology service providers. The tool prevents vendors from bidding on some requests for quotes unless they're formally authorized by the manufacturer to resell technology to federal buyers.
"If you want to buy a router from a major networking manufacturer, you probably want them to a be an authorized reseller. If you want to buy a power cable, you maybe don't care," SEWP Program Manager Joanne Woytek said on the "Government Matters" television show last week.
So far this year, agencies have placed $1.5 billion dollars in orders from SEWP's hardware and software product and services, according to NASA.
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Nextgov chatted with Woytek, who has been working on this effort for years, about why it's often important to check if vendors are authorized by the manufacturer before buying. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Nextgov: You're trying to get agencies to pay closer attention to whether vendors are actually authorized to sell certain products. Why did you take this on?
Joanne Woytek: I started the process about 10 years ago. We have government sometimes over using [the term authorized resellers] and then industry not really having a clear statement about what it means.
We hit a good point two years ago ... where we set up a system whereby if reseller said they’re authorized, we verified it with the manufacturer. Doing the handshake with the manufacturer gives us an authorized list of resellers.
We gave agencies that information, but it was just another file they had to open and see who was authorized. The resellers were not paying close attention to the process. I had to come up with a way [in which] those critical processes for authorized resellers had real meaning to the manufacturer and the government.
[In NASA's new system] we’re not going to make the customer look it up. We’re not going to allow the quote to come through [from unauthorized sellers, but customers] still have the possibility of saying, ‘Give me all the options.’
Nextgov: Why is this so important?
Woytek: The main issue we have is a customer goes out, and they get a quote and they don’t check that it’s from an authorized reseller. After they get the product, the manufacturer contacts them and says, 'By the way, you didn’t buy through an authorized reseller, we’re not going to give you a warranty.'
It can take lots of time to work out a deal—to either have it be warrantied or go back and start [the transaction] over again. We do 40,000 orders a year, it’s not like it happens every day. A dozen times a year it might happen.
Nextgov: Has there been any pushback from vendors who aren't authorized?
Woytek: Manufacturers are extremely happy. There are companies who are less than happy ... because the government has [so far] not paid attention, and they’ve been able to sell by stating not quite what the government is asking for. It could be that a company is authorized to sell commercial products by a manufacturer, [which] does not mean they’re authorized to sell to federal. It might be authorized for hardware [instead of] software, but doesn't tell the customer there’s a difference.
Nextgov: The new system lets customers choose whether it's important for a vendor to be authorized, depending on what they're buying. Why might an agency opt for an unauthorized vendor?
Woytek: It can be cheaper to use a non-authorized product. A customer [might say], 'I just want to buy a router. I’m going to maintain it, I have my own network maintenance team, I don’t need the warranty. I just want to pay the cheapest amount of money.' It’s not wrong, it’s just riskier.