The federal acquisition agency held its first listening meeting with e-commerce providers as it begins planning its own ecommerce portal for federal buyers.
The General Services Administration is moving quickly to implement a provision in the 2018 defense bill that mandates government buyers be able to purchase items from commercial e-commerce portals.
Applying federal acquisition rules and standards to the one-click ordering of online shopping could be a heavy lift. At GSA's first town hall meeting for industry and stakeholders on designing the new program, experts warned not to under-regulate it, not to over-regulate it… and not to make it possible for Army privates to order cannabis muffins.
Representatives from big online retailers and service providers such as Overstock.com and Amazon Business told GSA experts charged with developing the portal that balancing regulation as well as federal government's social and economic priorities, such as set-asides for veteran-owned, women-owned and minority-owned businesses, are key to attracting both federal buyers and commercial sellers to the effort.
Laura Stanton, assistant commissioner of the Office of Strategy Management in the Federal Acquisition Service, said the agency hopes to generate plan to start changing policies to support the portal's development March. Within a year, the agency has to complete market research on portal and within two years, set out the portal's implementation guidance.
GSA Administrator Emily Murphy said the effort is aimed at reducing barriers to entry for sellers to the federal market, as well as increasing buying efficiencies for federal buyers and getting better pricing.
Stanton and panel of other GSA policy and compliance officials heard from experts including Rob Bohn, senior counsel at Amazon Business, and Brock Lyle, associate general counsel at Overstock.com, and former Kansas Rep. Todd Tiahrt, who now represents the National Association for the Employment of People Who Are Blind in Washington.
GSA officials said they were in "listening mode," soaking up industry experience and advice. They said they wouldn't take questions about the project during the event.
Lyle said the use of an ecommerce portal, properly implemented, could eventually bring IT products priced at much as $13 below market pricing. "If its competitive, it could bring a significant shift," he said. "The government would be driving things and allowing businesses to compete for that business."
The sticking point of the project could be striking the right balance of regulation and compliance with market freedom, according to attendees.
"It's the age-old question" federal agencies have to face when they try to open up to new ideas, Roger Waldron, president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, told FCW during a break at the event.
Amazon Business and Overstock.com told GSA officials they looked to the agency to take care of federal buying compliance rules. Lyle wants GSA to set "basic requirements" for sellers' security and applicable laws for the portal. He also argued that over-regulation for seller entry onto the portal was "a huge barrier to entry" for them. He said a basic set of requirements should be set for sellers on a GSA e-commerce portal such as those used by the agency for its Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program for cloud computing security.
However, that blanket approach would put serious gaps into compliance and security requirements, argued Tiahrt, as well as blunt the efficiencies the portal was trying to achieve.
Without strong compliance mandates, the portal could allow questionable and ineffective purchasing by rank and file federal employees who may or may not have buying experience.
"An Army private might be able to buy marijuana muffins" using the portal without proper regulatory compliance, Tiahrt cautioned. He likened the commercial portal providers want to a game of checkers, compared with the more complex "chess" version that incorporates government priorities such as disabled and minority owned firms and economic programs.
The potential problem, he told GSA executives, isn't insurmountable. Strong compliance directives written into the software that drives the portal would help, he said.
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