GSA/vendor spat snares Hill
- By Diane Frank
- Jul 10, 2000
The General Services Administration and the vendor community have pulled
Congress into their dispute over the GSA Advantage online ordering system,
ending up with an audit and possibly hearings in September.
To the GSA's Federal Supply Service, Advantage is a continually improving
system that allows federal customers to browse, research and buy products
from vendors on FSS schedules. And the key for GSA is the ability to do
all three of those functions.
But the buying — and, more importantly, the selling — are what vendors
are most interested in. Problems with the way Advantage is set up led vendors
to seek the aid of Reps. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Stephen Horn (R-Calif.).
And now a General Accounting Office audit that could lead to hearings before
the end of the congressional session may also help their cause.
"Congressman Davis has been very interested in pursuing e-government
and e-management issues and making sure that the government keeps up in
those areas," said Melissa Wojciak, staff director for Davis on the House
Government Reform Committee's District of Columbia Subcommittee. "We would
like to potentially request that Chairman Horn hold a hearing in September...to
see how the government is using online procurement and GSA Advantage and
see what agencies are getting out of it."
Davis and Horn, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's
Government Management, Information and Technology Subcommittee, in January
requested the audit of "the major issues and challenges the GSA is facing"
in electronic commerce. Senate Governmental Affairs Committee members also
have expressed interest in the workings of Advantage, according to Bernard
Ungar, director of government business operations issues at GAO.
The results of the audit, which GAO included in a letter to Horn and
Davis on June 29, focused on three concerns:
n That FSS requires vendors to supply too much detail for product information,
leading to duplication of the vendors' own World Wide Web sites.
n That it takes so long to place product information that orders are
out of date when vendors receive them.
n That compared to the amount of time and money vendors put into Advantage,
they get a relatively low return.
Vendors did tell the GAO auditors that they have "a good working relationship
with FSS," but that still is not enough.
"They have taken some steps, but the troubling thing is that some of
those steps have been backwards," said Larry Allen, executive director of
the Coalition for Government Procurement.
According to GAO, FSS does not believe there is a problem with out-of-date
information on orders but is working to improve the level of product detail
that vendors are required to provide. Ed O'Hare, FSS chief information officer,
said the agency should have new criteria by September to determine which
products can simply be "referenced" to send federal buyers to vendors' Web
Sales volume, however, is what vendors see as the most pressing problem
and is an area where GSA's expectations for Advantage differ the most from
industry's. Overall, FSS schedules bring in more than $10 billion in IT
sales per year. But in fiscal 1999, the 2,000 schedule vendors on Advantage
had only $86 million in sales, and fiscal 2000 sales at the end of May totaled
just over $64 million.
FSS keeps track not only of Advantage sales but also the number of people
registering to use the site, those requesting information and the number
of searches. "That's what's important to me — the number of users," O'Hare
said. "The real goal of Advantage is to get a lot of people to use it. We're
not going to force people to buy from the Web site."
For vendors, however, research and browsing are not enough. "If I'm
a federal sales manager trying to sell throwing more money at Advantage
within my company, that's not going to float," Allen said. "It's tough for
federal sales people and federal marketing people to sell Advantage to their
But there is really no e-commerce Web site that is making as much for
its stockholders as the traditional market, O'Hare said. "These are issues
the whole e-business world is working out; we just happen to be on the
edge of it," he said.