OMB's rules could rehash interagency buying

Federal agencies and vendors involved with governmentwide contracts said last week that management guidelines for such vehicles recently issued by the Office of Management and Budget generally make "common sense." But one of the recommendations - that agencies think about limiting interagency purchases - could cause a re-evaluation of such pacts.

An OMB memo sent to agency heads Feb. 26 advises them to "consider placing an initial limit" on how many orders they will accept from other government customers until they can determine if they have the resources to "adequately manage" the volume of orders received. Among other suggestions OMB director Franklin Raines said agencies must be sure they assign enough people to manage their contracts.

The memo follows a statement issued last August when the Clinger-Cohen Act took effect that promised OMB would provide by February substantive guidelines to help agencies administer multiple-agency procurements. OMB officials are currently discussing whether more guidance is necessary to control the number of these contracting programs and ensure that vendors continue to provide discounts to federal buyers.

"OMB is simply providing good management guidance " said Paul Brubaker vice president for federal information services with Litton/PRC Inc. who oversaw the legislation for its sponsor former Sen. William Cohen who is now secretary of Defense. "This is stuff that should be done anyway."

Bruce McConnell OMB's chief of information policy said agencies are "to a greater or lesser extent " following the principles in the memo but "we have been hearing from [Chief Information Officers] Council members and others that management guidance would be helpful."

Bob Dornan senior vice president at Federal Sources Inc. McLean Va. said the guidelines hark back to limits that the General Services Administration placed on interagency buys under the Brooks Act. Under the old rules GSA placed initial limits on how much outside agencies could buy from a contract "bumping them up" if officials saw fit. The Raines memo he said exhorts agencies to exercise "a little caution" now that the Brooks-era regulations have been swept away.

Richard Lieber who manages the Transportation Department's governmentwide Information Technology Omnibus Procurement contract said most of the OMB guidelines reflect management practices his agency has already adopted such as having a flexible staff to cope with the volume of orders received from outside.

Lieber said he thought voluntary guidelines being developed by the program managers of major governmentwide task-order contracts would address the issue of what sort of limits should be placed on interagency purchases. "Either we do our own regulation or someone is going to do it for us " Lieber said. "The only issue is the less regulation the better."

Brubaker said the guidelines could have "a chilling effect" on government-wide contracts but that "might not be a bad thing. It's really going to force the agencies to think out how they will administer the contracts."

The memo has been widely interpreted as a response to questions raised in news reports and by members of Congress about whether the National Institutes of Health had planned sufficiently how it would administer two multiple-agency programs ImageWorld and Chief Information Officer Solutions and Partners. The NIH contracting office was overwhelmed with orders after these contracts were awarded in August and the procurement staff was increased.

McConnell declined to offer any specific examples of agencies that were having trouble managing their multiple-agency programs. "Our thinking was in part influenced by press reports some congressional inquiries and discussions with agencies " McConnell said.

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