Allen: Schedule contracts work

The General Services Administration’s multiple-award schedule contract program is the most popular way for agencies to buy commercial services and products because it has the depth and breadth to meet the full range of federal agency needs. Perhaps more than any other federal acquisition program, the schedules program recognizes that the federal government is a not a “one size fits all” customer. In addition, the schedules program is a leading portal through which government buyers can access thousands of small firms. Small businesses make up more than 70 percent of schedule contract holders and account for a third of schedule sales.

As a result, the program allows customer choice, and it is the premier acquisition vehicle of GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service.

Those are important points to emphasize these days. As new leaders at GSA examine ways to meet a fresh round of environmental, disability access and technological mandates, it is important that they retain the underlying flexibility of schedule contracts. The last thing anyone should want is to mandate the removal of commercial items in favor of only those few offerings that meet unique government standards.

The new mandates aren’t the first to come down the schedules road. GSA has successfully melded previous federal buying requirements with maximum customer choice and actually increased schedule business as a result. A look at how this happened may provide an important guide for the current generation of schedule leaders.

In the mid-1990’s, GSA was faced with implementing newly passed disability access standards that required federal purchasers of electronic and information technology to buy products that people with an array of physical and other disabilities could use.

Although there were some exceptions, the intent was clear: disabled workers should be able to use standard technology in a manner as similar as possible to the way their non-disabled counterparts use it.

GSA leaders at the time took two actions that proved crucial to the continued viability of schedule contracts, while ensuring that contracts for electronic and IT products offered what is now known as Section 508-compliant solutions.

First, they met with industry partners to update them on the new requirements and assess the current state of commercially available products that met them.

Second, they worked with the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and other procurement regulators to draft rules that put customers in the driver’s seat when making compliant procurement choices.

GSA did not force any company off schedule for not offering products meeting this government-only standard. 

This case study provides an important lesson for today’s GSA leadership and their contractor partners.

The schedules program should remain open to all potential buyers while government rules work with competition and market dynamics to drive federal agency buying decisions.

Allen is executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement.

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