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Air Force F-4 Phantoms, valet parked.

That bizarre phrase is one that has definitely been popping up regularly in the Pentagon’s daily list of contract awards for several years. Like this one from Monday:

“Innovative Scientific Solutions Inc., Dayton, Ohio, is being awarded a $44,560,000 indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract (FA8650-13-D-2343 with Task Order 00001) for advanced propulsion concepts and cycles program.”

The phrase itself didn’t show up in Pentagon contract awards until 2005, when it appeared on 18 of the year’s approximately 260 contract-announcement lists. But since 2006, it has appeared in about 80% of all the Pentagon’s daily listing of contract awards, which can contain dozens of individual contracts. Here’s a description of what they are.

“IDIQs help streamline the contract process and speed service delivery,” says the General Services Administration, the government’s buyer-in-chief. Independent government- procurement lawyer Herb Fenster says such contracts, under a variety of names, have been around since the 1960s. “It’s an idiom for outsourcing,” he says. “There are good reasons for a government agency to reach out and issue an IDIQ contract. In many respects, it’s cheaper for the agency to do that, than to conjure up its needs as they come along during a fiscal year and issue a series of small contracts.”

idiq chart

Battleland Graphics Lab

How many daily Pentagon contract-announcement lists contained IDIQ awards, by year.

An Air Force acquisition pro agrees. “Contracting is an inexplicably faddish activity. Rather than tap into the wide range of available contract types and pick the one best suited to each need, there is a strong tendency to over-rely on a single contract type within any given time frame,” the veteran buyer says. “I think that’s why you’re seeing zero IDIQ contracts ten years ago and lots of them now.”

He says such contracts offer the government needed flexibility. “An IDIQ contract gives the government `optionality’ and reduces the need to predict future demand,” he adds. “Lazy? Maybe a little. Or maybe it’s about being more efficient. See, if the contacting process wasn’t so long, complex and demanding, we could write a specific contract for a well-defined need, then write another contract as a new need arises. You’d never write an IDIQ contract if writing a new contract didn’t take so long or if the future was stable and predictable. But because it takes forever to get a new contract signed — and lots of things change over that time — an IDIQ structure allows us to establish a flexible contract vehicle that is rapidly responsive to emerging needs.”

Plus, the acquisition officer adds, the taxpayers are protected, at least as well as they are under any other kind of contract. “This doesn’t let us avoid competition, oversight or any appropriate checks and balances,” he says. “We still have reviews, competition, etc. It just allows us to avoid some of the pointless bureaucratic delays.”

Others aren’t so sure. “When I was a project engineer in the Air Force,” one old-timer says, “I would have been reprimanded if I put such sloppy language in a contract I was responsible for.”

OK. Today’s procurement lesson is over.