Editorial: A modest proposal

Now that the General Services Administration is on a roll with SmartBuy, it's time for a new assignment — one that could have an equally dramatic impact on government procurement yet spark little or no industry resistance.

SmartBuy, of course, is all about savings. The federal government, GSA officials reason, ought to capitalize on agencies' collective buying power to drive down the cost of buying and maintaining common software products. The program represents an evolution in procurement that has its roots in GSA's Federal Supply Schedule.

It's time for a similar crosscutting effort to simplify the shopping process itself. It's not only a matter of negotiating lower prices but also one of finding the right deals.

Let's say you are an Army buyer in the market for a midrange Unix workstation. You know the brand you want and the basic configuration, and have a rough idea of how much money you can spend. Now what?

The first contract that comes to mind might be NASA's Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement. But it's not necessarily the best option. Dozens of vendors offer hardware and software through the National Institutes of Health's Electronic Commodity Store III program. And perhaps the Army has established blanket purchase agreements with Unix vendors.

What you need is a virtual mall. The system would provide access to electronic catalogs for all existing governmentwide, agency-specific contracts and the Federal Supply Schedule. When you log in, the system, recognizing you as an Army buyer, would search all such vehicles for which you are eligible.

Search returns would provide pricing, configuration information and specific contract terms, such as industrial fees and warranties — in short, all the data needed to decide which is the best deal, not just the lowest price.

Building such a system would be a massive undertaking, requiring GSA officials to work with agency contracting officers and industry vendors to set up and — with more difficulty — maintain their catalogs electronically. But once in place, it would help individual buyers find the best available options. However long it would take, it would be a worthy undertaking.

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