Agencies need rules of the road

The Department of Veterans Affairs late last month became the latest in a string of federal agencies to hang out a virtual shingle announcing its entry into the procurement business.

Like the National Institutes of Health and its landmark Electronic Computer Store contract the VA will now be in a position to hawk a variety of telecommunications and computer products and services throughout the government under its recently awarded $1 billion blanket purchase agreement with Datatrac Information Services. Unlike other agencies the VA was up front about its goal to use the contract to fill the 10 percent of its operating budget that comes from nonappropriated funds.

Procurement reform was not intended to put agencies into the acquisition business but perhaps it's just an inevitable consequence. Many would argue that there is little sense in an agency's departure from its core mission to sell products and services to other agencies. Still others contend that agencies procuring information technology for other agencies makes sense and brings with it many efficiencies.

We think the jury is still out on agencies as merchants and distributors but the VA pact and others like it underscore the need for common "rules of the road" in governmentwide procurements.

Outgoing Office of Federal Procurement Policy boss Steven Kelman has championed a Mayflower Compact of sorts for federal agencies running governmentwide vehicles. A draft compact has been promised before he leaves. Perhaps it is also time before the road becomes any more crowded for agencies to get together and sort out their roles in the business of procurement.

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