GSA schedules: Full of tantalizing possibilities
As successful as the Federal Supply Service schedule contracts have been in recent years, many people wonder about their untapped potential.
In 1995, the General Services Administration allowed companies to offer information technology services — not just products — through schedule contracts. Since then, agencies and vendors have looked to use the GSA schedule contracts for increasingly complex projects.
Services have helped fuel a tremendous growth in IT sales on the GSA schedules, from $4.5 billion in fiscal 1998 to $13.2 billion in fiscal 2002, which included about
$8 billion in services. Many projects that once would have required agencies to handle their own procurements now flow through the GSA schedules.
But do many agencies take that approach? How complex of a project can GSA support? The possibilities are tantalizing as contracting officers become more sophisticated in their use of the GSA schedules.
Agencies still put a great deal of business through various governmentwide acquisition contracts (GWACs), which wrap many IT product and service items into a neat package.
Unlike the fairly generic GSA schedules, GWACs come in many flavors to satisfy even the most discerning palette. Some focus on high-end computing or homeland security technology, while others offer the same broad mix of products and services that can be found on the GSA schedules.
Many people still view the
quantity (IDIQ) GWACs as more
viable for larger jobs than the GSA schedules.
"GWACs have teams [of contractors] whose credentials have been examined and are already in place," said Ed Naro, vice president of GSA and IDIQ programs at Northrop Grumman Information Technology. "They include government contracting support from the agency that owns the GWAC, as well as programmatic help if the customer wants it. The agency owner can also provide marketing help."
It saves agencies a lot of energy, Naro said, which is why a GSA schedule is typically not used for large-scale integration projects.
Agencies that want to put together complex task orders are likely to use blanket purchase agreements. BPAs were established to allow agencies to fulfill recurring needs without having to go to a schedule contract each time they needed to buy something.
BPAs have numerous virtues: They enable agencies to reduce
acquisition costs through quantity discounts, streamline ordering procedures and set up teaming arrangements among multiple contractors. And because GSA schedule-based BPAs incorporate the terms and conditions of schedule contracts, agencies do not have to pull together solicitation documents or synopses for their acquisitions.
Bill Deavers, managing director of federal services for BearingPoint Inc., believes momentum is building for the use of GSA BPAs because agencies are realizing their simplicity.
The teaming arrangement, which he said only the schedule contracts have, is one of the easiest ways for agencies to meet their small-
The only way they can get credit for that is to contract directly with a small business. GSA allows an agency to contract with a small business that has teamed with a prime contractor under a BPA, while still allowing the project, and small business, to be managed by the prime contractor.
"I'm aware of no other contract that allows for that," Deavers said. "In the past six months, this has been a real driver" for the use of BPAs.
On the other hand, most procurement officials feel comfortable using GWACs but don't really understand how they can use BPAs, he said. When Deavers explains it to them, he said, "their eyes light up."
Another advantage of the GSA schedule is the volume of available contractors, said Don Scott, senior vice president for EDS Government Solutions. The teaming option allows for the kinds of mix-and-match approaches that you don't get with GWACs.
"There are over 3,000 GSA schedule holders, so I can't imagine there's any way someone would not be able to get a very competitive program together," Scott said.
The GSA schedules also offer greater flexibility because with GWACs, customers usually must work through the agency that runs the contract. But anyone working through schedule contracts can deal directly with the vendors, he said.
The GSA rules allow for the use of either a single BPA or multiple BPAs with several vendors, said Stephanie Ambrose, program manager for governmentwide programs at EDS.
With multiple BPAs, users can
reduce the number of vendors to a preferred group of companies or can choose the best provider of products or services without reducing the number of vendors, Ambrose said.
Still, despite all the benefits, it's not clear to what extent agencies are willing to shift business from GWACs to GSA. Deavers, for example, said there is definitely a growing use of GSA BPAs, and he believes people are going to the GSA schedules for that kind of work.
No Clear Choice
But Deavers doesn't see this as an
either/or situation. BearingPoint has a presence on several GWACs and several GSA schedules, and both businesses are healthy, he said.
Using GSA schedules for complex projects remains a challenge, because agencies must learn to pull together a project's various components, Naro said. Still, they can buy integration services from the schedule as easily as anything else.
"The agency itself would have to decide what it wanted to include [in integration programs], but I would not think that would be a difficult thing for any agency these days," he said.
Overall, with the breadth of products and services offered through the GSA schedules, "the 'only invented here' kinds of contracts that agencies have been used to putting together themselves is now a pretty hard argument to make," he said.
Neal Fox, assistant commissioner for commercial acquisition at GSA's Federal Supply Service, said the numbers do suggest contracting
officers are increasingly looking to GSA for resources to handle bigger and more complex projects.
Compared to the situation a
few years ago when the GSA schedules were geared toward products, he said, more than 60 percent of sales are taken up by services. This year, GSA will probably do more than $14 billion in IT-related
business, and approximately
60 percent of that will be from schedule orders.
"And a number of those will be large task orders and integration efforts," he said.
The notion that the schedules can't be used for large-scale integration efforts is something of a misconception that GSA has had to overcome, Fox said. And although GSA carries a number of GWACs, he said, those contracts have provisions that the schedules don't. So he sees them as complementary rather than competitive vehicles.
"Basically, the schedules can be used for any of the large types of tasks that GWACs can be used for," he said.
He hopes government procurement officials will hear that message. The more the schedules are used for large-scale projects, the more they will grow.
Even though the schedules are growing now at 20 percent to
25 percent a year, he said, "we are nowhere near capacity yet as far as our ability to be able to handle this."
Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at email@example.com.