SmartBuy slow to materialize

What's happened to SmartBuy? In June, the Office of Management and Budget predicted that the enterprise software licensing program would have several contracts in place by Sept. 30, which has come and gone with little apparent progress.

The General Services Administration, which administers the program, is working to answer Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census Subcommittee.

In a Sept. 25 letter to GSA Administrator Stephen Perry, Putnam praised the plan, in which agencies will band together to negotiate governmentwide licenses for common software products, using their combined buying power to negotiate lower prices.

Putnam reminded Perry that OMB had earlier estimated that the program could save taxpayers $100 million annually. But he wanted to know when the contracts will come.

"It has been brought to my attention that this process may be experiencing obstacles and impediments that are preventing the timely accomplishment of the stated goals and objectives of SmartBuy," he wrote. "The combination of $100 million in annual savings achieved through SmartBuy, while concurrently achieving billions of dollars of long-term savings derived through [information technology] consolidation, deserves priority attention and an efficient process that takes advantage of savings opportunities."

GSA officials aren't commenting publicly. Procurement experts point to a variety of possible problems. Emory Miller, director of IT professional development at the agency and leader of the SmartBuy initiative, recently announced his plans to retire in January 2004. And vendors may be resisting demands to offer lower prices than they already do.

"At some level, if a Microsoft says 'No, sorry, we don't want to do this'...I don't want to say they have the government over a barrel, but the government has to stop and regroup," said Steve Kelman, professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School and former administrator of OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy. "What is the government going to do, stop using Microsoft?"

More broadly, the task is harder than officials may have expected, said Chip Mather, senior vice president at Acquisition Solutions Inc. Mather, a former Air Force procurement official, helped create the enterprise licensing program the Defense Department uses.

"This is really hard stuff," he said. "It sounds easy on its face. Trying to convince software providers — when you have nothing on the table, to give you the best deal they ever have — that's a hard sell."

Administering the program is more complicated than the GSA schedules and the governmentwide acquisition contracts the agency offers, Mather added. "This is not something that you just award a contract and can order against. It takes management," he said.

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