Kelman: GSA and the workforce

The future of the General Services Administration has been a hot topic recently. There has also been discussion about the acquisition workforce, which is dwindling in size despite dramatic increases in procurement dollars and faces a retirement wave. The two issues are related.

The procurement workforce shortage provides a strong reason for a central contracting capacity such as GSA — or other governmentwide fee-for-service operation — to have an important role. With government shorthanded, we need to make the best possible use of the people we have. Elementary management theory suggests that a central capacity available to buying agencies is one way to maximize resources.

Some products or services agencies buy are unique to them. When that is the case, particularly when demand comes in spikes — such as buying an enterprise resource planning system, information technology disaster recovery services or procurement automation — the best use of a given level of contracting capacity is to put it in a central pool rather than for each agency to grow its own. It doesn't make sense for an agency to train people to buy disaster recovery services that are bought only once every few years, for example.

Furthermore, agencies often experience surges in overall buying levels. For agencies to hire workers to meet such surges is inefficient, because demand will eventually drop and it's hard to get rid of people once they've been hired. But not to hire — the current course — is ineffective because contracting quality suffers. Again, a central capacity that is available as a governmentwide surge protector makes sense.

There is, finally, a practical reason for dealing with the acquisition workforce crisis through fee-for-service operations. The politics of hiring additional procurement professionals at the agency level are daunting — what elected official wants to be accused of wanting more "bureaucrats"? Fee-for-service operations hire employees based on the workforce needed to meet demand for their services. As agencies demand more, fee-for-service operations hire more people. This is the most practical way to deal with a numbers problem everyone knows exists but the system can't tackle.

But this approach to acquisition workforce problems puts great demands on fee-for-service operations. In recent years, GSA has seemed most comfortable simply negotiating schedules and raking in the dough as agencies use them.

Negotiating underlying contracts is one part of the vision of the role for a central contracting agency. In fact, it is hard to imagine how the government would have survived with current workforce levels had these vehicles been unavailable. But this vision also requires providing skilled contract negotiators, experts in specialty contracts. GSA, however, seems to have been moving away from that kind of higher-level contracting. This vision also suggests that GSA should be offering fee-for-service contract management support.

As Deidre Lee, assistant commissioner for integrated technology services at the Federal Acquisition Service, has frequently stated in a different context: An expansive view of GSA's role as a fee-for-service provider creates a responsibility to use that fee revenue more creatively on the government's behalf. n

Kelman is a professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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