GSA's revolving door spins
Analysts hail arrival of Deidre Lee but worry about future of schedules program
The arrival of Deidre Lee at the General Services Administration is being hailed as good news for the procurement agency's future. But the same procurement analysts cheering her decision to leave the Defense Department for GSA are also concerned about Neal Fox's planned departure.
Fox, GSA's assistant commissioner of the Office of Commercial Acquisition, announced his planned departure last week. Although he did not specify a date, he said he will leave the agency for the private sector.
Fox's announcement came not long after Donna Bennett, commissioner of GSA's Federal Supply Service, which oversees the GSA schedule contracts, retired July 3. When Fox leaves, no one involved in GSA's reorganization effort will have hands-on knowledge from the senior-level on the schedule program, said Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement.
The program provides lists of preapproved vendors and offers products at prenegotiated prices, which agencies use to purchase many items. It allows for relatively quick procurements because the competition has already been completed. But the contracts also demand sound management, Allen said.
"I don't think they're doing [anything detrimental] intentionally, but because the people who are running this haven't been in the agency very long, they probably don't have an understanding of how important it is to maintain contracts," he said.
"Neal was a very creative, driving force behind the schedules program," said Jonathan Aronie, an attorney at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter and Hampton and a Federal Computer Week columnist. "What was really good about having him in that post was that there was a single owner for the program."
Barbara Shelton, acting commissioner of the Federal Technology Service, GSA's other major procurement branch, previously served as administrator of the agency's Mid-Atlantic Region, based in Philadelphia. In June, Shelton was named acting commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service (FAS), which will
replace both FSS and FTS after the reorganization is complete.
Her background in customer service is important but cannot replace contracting expertise, Allen said.
GSA officials disagreed with Allen's concern. "We are confident that GSA's associates have the knowledge and expertise of the schedules program to continue to meet the needs of our customers," said Mary Alice Johnson, an agency spokeswoman.
Allen said Lee's decision is encouraging. She will leave her post as director of Defense procurement and acquisition policy to join GSA as assistant commissioner for integrated technology services in August.
"She clearly does have a full appreciation for maintaining a firm contracting backbone, be it schedules" or governmentwide acquisition contracts, he said. "The concern I have is not with Dee, but one of timing. Will all the decisions have been made prior to her coming aboard?"
Steve Kelman, a professor at Harvard University and another FCW columnist, said he worries that the opposite will
"If anything, my fear has been that the fully assisted part was going to get short shrift," he said. "I tend to be an advocate of a GSA that offers more, that has services available in addition to self-service. It's been my impression that FSS has been moving toward a more dominant role over the last few years."
Although Allen, Aronie and other observers are concerned about GSA in a post-Fox era, praise for Lee is almost universal.
"I don't think anyone in the government has been more influential or more effective when it comes to advancing procurement policy," said Scott Orbach, president of consulting firm EZGSA. "This new role sends the message that GSA is serious about FAS, and that [Lee] believes in FAS' direction, importance and future. It's a very exciting development."
"Dee Lee is great," Aronie said. "She, like Neal, is an outside-the-box thinker. She cares about contractors. The problem is she's being put in a role where she doesn't have full control over the schedules program."
However, Aronie said, the risk to the program is not so sweeping that it should overshadow the larger reorganization effort. Many people remain at the agency who are deeply involved in the schedules program and could provide guidance, even though they rank lower than Fox.
"From a contractor's point of view, day to day, I don't think this is going to make a big difference at all," Aronie said. "The place it's going to come in is when contractors have big issues that they need to escalate up. There's not a single schedule owner anymore."