GSA looks to corral former customers
Procurement agency tries to win back lost business
- By Matthew Weigelt
- Jun 18, 2009
Good news hasn't come very often to the embattled General Services Administration in recent years. So when some positive attention does come its way, GSA officials are eager to wave the results in front of its old go-it-alone customers — if only to show them that the agency has left its bad habits in the past.
Auditors from the Defense Department and GSA have been examining GSA’s books, and agency officials are confident the outcome will reveal that GSA can toe the regulatory line, said Ed O’Hare, new assistant commissioner for integrated technology services at GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service.
“We are confident we made the changes we needed to make, and we’ll fly through,” he said in a speech delivered in May.
Meanwhile, his marketing people are gathering a list of multiagency contracts and indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts that other agencies launched around the same time GSA was found to be assisting the Defense Department with illegal purchases. O’Hare is targeting his message of repentance to the officers in the agencies whose own IDIQs are about to expire. The contracts often last for five to 10 years.
He wants to convince those agencies that GSA is ready to take over the other IDIQs, relieving other agencies of the maintenance burdens that come with running a large contracting program.
His question is simply: “Do you really want to do this again?”
For added emphasis, O’Hare also intends to highlight GSA’s inexpensive usage fees. Agencies pay a 0.75 percent service fee to use the Alliant GWAC, and GSA is capping that fee at $150,000 a year.
“I defy anyone to do a GWAC less expensively than that,” O’Hare said.
GSA’s ‘come to Jesus’ moment
Although GSA says it has moved past the scandal that rocked it five years ago, the memories — and history — linger. On Jan. 8, 2004, the GSA inspector general reported a pervasive problem of improper task orders and contract awards by the agency’s client support centers (CSCs), which served DOD. The IG found that some GSA employees were using the Information Technology Fund for purchases of goods and services that were well outside the fund’s scope. As a result, DOD officials banned use of GSA for major purchases.
The list of GSA’s sins grew long, according to the IG: improper sole-source awards, allowing work outside the scope of contracts, and inappropriately using time-and-materials task orders. Although the IT fund is authorized only for acquiring IT equipment, software and related services, investigators found that CSCs were dipping into it to pay for a wide variety of inappropriate things, such as marine barriers, pathogen detection devices, and construction of classrooms and office buildings.
The GSA IG attributed the problems to a culture that emphasized revenue growth instead of adhering to proper procurement procedures.
“I think every organization has to have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment,” said David Drabkin, GSA’s chief acquisition officer. That IG report was GSA’s moment.
Although the problems applied only to one small piece of GSA’s operation, the public perception was that the agency was more broadly compromised. “One part of your business does badly, and it hurts everybody,” Drabkin said.
DOD customers were frustrated with GSA and showed it in 2004 and 2005. Sales in the multiple-award schedules program slowed, but the program kept GSA from losing money year over year, Drabkin said.
But O’Hare and Drabkin said the agency has reorganized and revamped its operations. GSA is a new place compared to several years ago. And with the problems solved, GSA is ready to work. This latest round of audits, as required by the fiscal 2007 National Defense Authorization Act, should close the file on GSA as a poor broker of procurement dollars, O’Hare said.
Kevin Carroll, former program executive officer for the Army’s enterprise information systems who was in charge of the Information Technology Enabled Services-2S contract, said the new audit results can only help GSA rebuild its image and agencies’ trust in it.
“They’re showing responsibility,” said Carroll, president of the Kevin Carroll Group. But, he said, GSA also must continue to re-establish and develop its business relationship with DOD. Just showing good audit results won’t be enough.
Greg Rothwell, former chief procurement officer at the Homeland Security Department and president of Everymay Consulting Group, said there’s a deeper issue that might be too tough for GSA to surmount with a good audit: Agencies have become accustomed to doing their own contracting, and they aren’t likely to dump their contracts just to return to GSA.
Martha Johnson, President Barack Obama's nominee to be GSA administrator, said the agency has suffered its decline largely because of new freedom for agencies. Legislative changes in the 1990s, such as the Clinger-Cohen Act, removed many of the rules that required agencies to use GSA. It’s now one option among many.
“If you own it, you can control it,” said Rothwell, who helped to launch DHS’ Enterprise Acquisition Gateway for Leading Edge Solutions (EAGLE) contract and the Internal Revenue Service’s first two iterations of the Total Information Processing Support Services (TIPSS) contracts. “If you can’t control it, it can’t be as responsive to the agency’s mission.”
Faster, better, cheaper
The reality of control and GSA’s rough times forced it to cater to its customers and listen to them, experts say. For instance, GSA is letting agencies use contracts other than its own when GSA assists a customer agency.
GSA is scrambling to get started on launching ways for agencies to get on board with the Obama administration’s emphasis on cloud computing. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra and Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra are advancing the administration’s policy, while GSA’s role could be to make it easy for agencies to use cloud computing services.
“We see the administration’s requirements, we respond by initiating some kind of contract action and make it fast and easy for government agencies to use,” O’Hare said.
He even wants to make cloud computing services available to agencies using a credit card, especially when they’re in a pinch for time.
“You don’t have to go to the CIO, you don’t have to go plan it, you don’t have to go buy servers or digital maps or do a [certification and accreditation], he said. O'Hare envisions an agency employee logging on to a Web site, answering a few questions, and “boom, check out, you got it.”
O’Hare’s Office of Integrated Technology Services has awarded all of its major contracts, such as Alliant and Networx, and they’re ready for business. "I’ve got to get out there and talk to people and try to convince them we’ve already got it,” he said.
And he wants to make GSA work “faster, better and cheaper” than other agencies can offer. “My job is to make it work,” he said.
Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.