GSA Buyer's Guide: Smart Shopping

GSA tools for managing procurements electronically continue to evolve

The General Services Administration, prompted by Congress, has developed a line of electronic tools during the past few years aimed at helping agencies more easily buy information technology products and services from GSA's multiple-award schedules contracts. Those tools include GSA Advantage, e-Buy and e-Library. Each tool serves a different purpose, but all three use the Internet to simplify the process for buying products and services through the program (see "Three tools to simplify procurements," Page s6).

Recent figures show that the tools are gaining popularity with buyers and sellers, though that wasn't always the case.

GSA Advantage was launched in late 1995 but had little impact initially. By early 2003, less than 0.5 percent of all schedule sales were completed using the tool, according to a Government Accountability Office report released at the time.

Things didn't fare much better with e-Buy, at least in the beginning. Developed in 2002 to address the need for IT services acquisition through the schedule program, agencies placed only 64 orders through e-Buy during its first year of operation.

But things have improved. GSA Advantage sales for fiscal 2005 were 37 percent higher at the end of May than they were during the same period last year. And last year's sales were a 21 percent increase over the 2003 period. Schedule sales through GSA Advantage had increased 33 percent from May 2004 to May 2005. In fiscal 2004, federal buyers posted nearly 25,600 requests for quotations (RFQs) through e-Buy, close to double the previous year's figures. Some 40,000 or more are expected to go through e-Buy in fiscal 2005.

However, that still doesn't mean that GSA's electronic tools are well understood. Most government buyers may have heard of GSA Advantage and e-Buy, which was not the case a few years ago, but that doesn't mean everyone knows enough to use them, said Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement. "People inside the Department of Defense, for example, do have a good idea of what they are and they do use them," he said. "But how much [buyers in] civilian agencies use them varies widely."

Because so many services are bought through GSA's schedules program, e-Buy has emerged as a major tool for agency buyers.

"E-Buy will be the principal way to buy services in the future, and it has already promoted competition," Allen said. "I think e-Buy is a huge success story."

Smart shopping

That doesn't mean the other tools will become only occasional items in buyers' arsenals. In fact, the tendency is to use all three tools as part of the research and procurement process, said Nancy Goode, director of GSA's Systems Management Center.

"Advantage is used for primary research, e-Library to search out categories and other areas, and e-Buy to see what potential [vendor] sources are available," Goode said. "And e-Buy can then also be used to set up the procurements."

GSA is working to make it easier for people who use the tools to take the results from one tool directly into another. For example, Goode said, someone might use e-Library to find information on certain contractors and then plug that information into GSA Advantage, which contains links to various text files and contractors' Web sites.

"The point is that people can jump from one to the other, move research done in Advantage over to e-Buy, and also do research in e-Library and move that over to e-Buy," she said.

GSA has worked hard to make e-Buy easy to use, she said, and has simplified the process by which buyers send requests for quotations and proposals and by which vendors track and respond to those requests.

But e-Buy can also be used for purchases other than services, said Bill Gormley, former assistant commissioner in GSA's Federal Supply Service and now president and chief executive officer of Federal Sources Inc. It can also be used for hardware purchases that go beyond the straightforward commodity procurements buyers can make through GSA Advantage.

"When you shop through Advantage, you see what you are buying, but e-Buy allows you to describe what you would like to buy," he said. "So, for example, you can say you are looking for 400 printers and describe the exact requirements you have and then automatically send them off to various [original equipment manufacturers], resellers, etc., to see if any can match them."

Many people still criticize these tools, even though they admit that GSA has been getting better at making it easier for people to use them.

Valerie Perlowitz, president of Reliable Integration Services, said the company has only done one deal through e-Buy and that was about a year ago. There was some confusion between the company and various contracting officers, who assumed company employees knew everything when they didn't. Then the due date came and went without any interplay between the two sides.

GSA's tools have "been getting better, but there are still a lot of inconsistencies about such things as notifying potential sellers that RFQs and RFPs are out there, for example, and we'd like to see more proactive ways to tell people about these," Perlowitz said. "Also, people are not notified about everything that's available on the [GSA] sites, even within the same" Special Item Number.

GSA officials do not back away from these issues, and officials generally acknowledge that there have been problems with the various tools. But they also say they have been and still are working to address them.

The tools will also continue to change as users' needs change, GSA officials say.

For one thing, Goode said, the Office of Management and Budget released a memo May 20 that mandates a strategic sourcing approach to procurement that agencies will have to use to cut purchasing expenses. Procurement officials will have to start analyzing their buying habits more closely and use the results from that analysis to get better deals from vendors.

GSA will now focus on helping agencies make their buying decisions at the corporate rather than the individual level, Goode said, and on how to get that information to individual agency buyers. Even if that doesn't require a change in the online tools themselves, it could dictate a different approach to using them.

Three tools to simplify procurements

GSA Advantage

The original intention was for agencies to order stock commodity items from General Services Administration's warehouses and then pay for them with a government purchase card. After Congress passed the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, GSA was required to develop an online system through which agencies could get to know what schedule products and services were available, and it looked to GSA Advantage to fulfill the requirement.

Vendors upload details of their products and services to the GSA Advantage database, which buyers can then search and sort according to keyword and category. If necessary, they can also go directly to a vendor's Web site to see more detail using GSA Advantage as a portal. Once they have decided on their purchases, they drop each item into a cart and pay online using a credit card or other means of payment.

E-Buy

The problem with GSA Advantage as a tool to buy information technology services, sales of which account for the majority of the growth in schedule sales, is that it was designed for commodity purchases and not as a way to deal with complex, large-scale services procurements.

E-Buy was developed to plug that hole. Buyers can construct requests for quotations and requests for proposals by stepping through lists of items on e-Buy's pages and selecting categories for their requests and the contractors they wish to consider receiving them.

Buyers also can attach documents to their requests, modify them while they are still open and send them to all potential sellers or only to a select few.

Sellers can view the requests online and respond with proposals, including sending attachments in response to Statements of Work sent out by buyers. But to view the solicitations, sellers must have their products and services catalogs listed under GSA Advantage.

E-Library

This latest addition to the list is intended to be a comprehensive market research tool for buyers, providing up-to-date contract information on all existing schedules and governmentwide acquisition contracts (GWACs).

It displays GSA and Department of Veterans Affairs schedules contract information; provides basic ordering guidelines, including vendor contact details; and provides information on procurement requirements for the schedules, GWACs, small-business, mandatory sources and blanket purchase agreements.

How to learn more

The General Services Administration often receives criticism for inadequately publicizing its services and how to use them. But that has changed.

"The criticism was a very fair one up to a year or so ago," said Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement. "But today the old saw about the GSA not training people is not true. The GSA will go anywhere to provide training, and people can sign up for a whole range of online training. That's probably been as big a reason as any for the increase in use of the tools."

GSA provides a number of training and information resources, such as:

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