A new deal

Air Force, GSA team could forge solution for charge card problems

As the Pentagon continues to buy more hardware and software using government charge cards, the Air Force has teamed with the General Services Administration to see if a tailor-made version of its GSA Advantage online purchasing system can fix some of the problems that go along with the streamlined buying process.

The project, known as Air Force Advantage, is the first case in which GSA has customized Advantage, a Web-based catalog of more than 3 million Federal Supply Service (FSS) products and offerings from more than 10,000 vendors.

Such a system, now being tested at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, could help the service limit abuse by creating a more visible audit trail, which Air Force officials could use to track how the service buys and uses hardware and software.

If the project works out, the Air Force hopes to funnel as many of its charge card purchases as possible through the new system. And other agencies are likely to be watching closely.

The pilot project's overall objective is to evaluate the feasibility of using an e-government purchase card solution, said Tom Wells, deputy director of contracting for Air Force Materiel Command headquarters at Wright-Patterson.

The Air Force is a good place to test the concept because the service uses the cards for $1.3 billion in purchases per year but is not able to track the purchases across the agency, Wells said.

Almost simultaneously, the Small Business Administration's SBA Exchange, a program to provide small and local businesses with electronic storefronts that will link into Air Force Advantage, was launched Oct. 30.

Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc. and a former Air Force procurement executive, said the impact of the pilot program "can be massive," when considering that private-sector firms are reporting about 20 percent savings using similar tools.

"In the past, the government would take what they were doing and turn it into electrons," Mather said. "But that didn't harness the power of e-procurement tools. It sounds like the government and the Air Force are fully understanding how to do that."

He also said the pilot project will help free contracting officers from the work associated with today's long and tedious acquisition processes and allow them to focus more on the largest government contracts, instead of the more than 90 percent of buys that come in under $100,000.

He added that the Air Force made a good decision in starting with a pilot project and then introducing the systems at higher levels, but acknowledged that GSA Advantage is not the most user-friendly tool. "The hope is that each iteration gets a little better."

Genie in a Bottle

In many ways, government purchase cards are like Aladdin's magic lantern, fulfilling all sorts of wishes but introducing a whole new set of problems. The cards have streamlined "micropurchases," saving significant amounts of money. But with 25 million purchases annually totaling $14 billion, agencies often don't know who is buying what.

In the past, Defense Department card holders have frequented online gambling sites and purchased personal vacations and services from prostitutes with government credit cards.

The cards were introduced several years ago to make it easier for federal employees to buy items that cost less than $2,500. Because records of the purchases are consolidated in monthly statements provided by the banks that issue the credit cards, managers are supposed to have an easy way to keep track of employees' small purchases.

GSA is helping the Air Force collect data about what the service is buying with the credit cards, including tracking purchases from small, local and disadvantaged businesses and businesses run by people with disabilities.

GSA Advantage is tied to GSA schedule contracts, and many small and disadvantaged companies do not have the resources to get a GSA schedule contract, let alone get on GSA Advantage, said John Gilligan, the Air Force's chief information officer. "A single, integrated capability has got to have small and local businesses," he said.

Air Force Advantage is the "first project to customize Advantage...and is being done on a pilot basis," said Pat Mead, deputy assistant commissioner for acquisition at FSS. "We're developing functionality incrementally."

Both the Air Force and GSA are tracking usage of the Air Force Advantage site and deciding whether the pilot project makes sense for other agencies. Furthermore, officials will determine if the site provides the Air Force with the data they need to better manage credit card purchases, Mead said. "The Air Force can manage the workflow and get business intelligence out the other end."

BroadVision Inc., which provides the platform that enables GSA to customize GSA Advantage, could use the same technology to customize applications for other agencies.

"Our architecture is very open and supports the [Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java 2 Enterprise Edition] platform," said Phil Cooke, vice president of BroadVision's federal division. "A lot of what we did for GSA Advantage is easily customized for the DOD folks. The codes are re-usable or easily modifiable to add functionality for [new] customers."

Culture Shock

Wells said the pilot project was launched in January and is being carried out in a series of incremental releases. Each iteration will offer additional capabilities, he said.

By January 2003, officials expect the site to include capabilities such as business intelligence features to manage and track credit card purchases, blanket purchase agreement pricing and workflow. About 1,300 purchase card holders work at Wright-Patterson — and some have more than one account — but the user community includes "any person with a requirement that can do the shopping online and put it in a shopping cart for the card holder to review and then buy," Wells said. "Before, that required a phone call or yellow sticky to the card holder."

Culture change has been a challenge so far, he said. The Air Force surveyed users and found that many of them do not use the Internet for home shopping needs, so "we're getting people used to shopping differently," he said. "We have spent a lot of time training people and getting users used to the concept."

GSA is refining an "e-purchase log" that automatically records purchases in a database so Air Force officials know exactly what is being bought from whom and when.

Such tracking should help the Air Force avoid the much-publicized credit card abuse that has plagued DOD in recent months.

Mead said the e-purchase log allows users to manually enter purchases that are made outside the scope of the pilot project. Such purchases are then added to the central collection database for all purchases made on Air Force Advantage. In the future, purchases made through SBA Exchange will also be included.

"Automatically recording purchases in a corporate database" that includes the who, what, when and where of a transaction, "that's a big deal for us," Wells said.

The service also will eventually set business rules so that when a user signs on to Air Force Advantage, the site will automatically highlight information about certain products and services sold by small or disadvantaged businesses or companies run by people with disabilities, Mead said.

"The Air Force can force spending in certain areas if that's what they want to do," she said.

Demand for Improvements

Currently, buyers are not required to use Air Force Advantage, and the number of users is smaller than program officials had hoped, Wells said, spurring the pilot team to ask potential users why they were not using the system.

In general, users said that the site needs to be easier to use and should include pictures of items. GSA is in the process of adding visual aids as a result of that feedback, Wells said.

Users also said that they need to buy products and services that are not available on the site, such as training courses. Air Force officials are working with GSA officials to address those needs.

Mark Amtower, a partner with Amtower and Co. in Ashton, Md., admits that he is not a fan of GSA Advantage and was not surprised by the survey feedback requesting that the tool be made more user-friendly.

"GSA Advantage is cumbersome, it's difficult to find things...[and] it's not intuitive," Amtower said. "Rather than customizing it...GSA should spend some money and make it easier to use."

Amtower said the buyers at Wright-Patterson most likely already have preferred Web sites that they frequently visit, including some run by small businesses, and that the Air Force Advantage pilot project is just adding another layer to that process. He added that he didn't see a problem with Air Force personnel buying products or services in person if a local business does not have a Web site.

Amtower said purchase cards were adopted to save time and money; adding another layer to the process through Air Force Advantage will not attain those goals.

"It's not a bad concept. It's a bad direction," he said. "GSA Advantage takes a lot of time [to use], and good Web sites like Dell [Computer Corp.], GTSI [Corp.] and CDW-G [Inc.] don't. If the Air Force wants to do something truly intelligent, they should have card holders list [preferred] vendors on the Air Force intranet, places where they can go and buy stuff quickly."

Wells said the near-term priorities for Air Force Advantage are:

* Continuing to reach out to the non-GSA schedule providers that are important to the Wright-Patterson community, which is currently being addressed through the partnership with SBA.

* Working with GSA to add features to the e-purchase log and then deciding whether to manage it internally or pay GSA to do it.

* Building BPA pricing into Air Force Advantage, which is also the goal of another pilot project being conducted by GSA and DOD.

"We're working with limited resources...[but] we're very happy with the progress," Wells said.

GSA officials had always planned to create customized versions of GSA Advantage, Mead said, and the agency does not track the costs of creating the specialized site for the Air Force pilot project. "The GSA will come up with something at some point if we decide to charge for it, but not at the moment, as it's still in such a prototype state," she said.

GSA officials are also willing to talk to other agencies interested in a customized Advantage, but there must be a good reason for such an effort.

By January 2003, the project should be far enough along that GSA officials can decide if future projects are warranted, she said.

NEXT STORY: DOD, GSA team on Marketplace

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.