GSA schedules delayed by small-business issues

Release of the General Services Administration's consolidated information technology schedule solicitation has been delayed for almost two months because the Small Business Administration contends that a schedule combining all IT products and services will hurt the interests of small businesses.

Talks between SBA and GSA's Federal Supply Service have already broken down, and SBA last week took its complaints to GSA administrator David Barram.

Judith Roussel, SBA's associate administrator for government contracting, said last week that her agency would file a formal appeal to Barram within two weeks if informal talks bore no fruit. The appeals process could add additional weeks to the wait for the already delayed solicitation.

"We are open to further discussions," Roussel said. "We don't have a desire to hold up the process, but we have a duty to uphold the interests of small businesses."

Roussel said SBA is concerned that the consolidated IT schedule will harm small businesses by giving agency buyers a one-stop shop for all their IT needs. She said agencies are more likely to look for a single vendor that can provide a full range of products and services, and most small businesses would be unable to satisfy extensive requirements.

"If you throw it all into one schedule, there is a potential for agencies to get one larger company to provide all of the services and products," Roussel said. "That could further erode the [schedule] dollars small businesses are getting."

She noted that small businesses hold 77 percent of GSA's IT schedule contracts but receive only 25 percent of the program's revenues.

Bill Gormley, FSS' assistant commissioner for acquisition, argued that the program has long served the interests of small businesses by giving them a vehicle to sell their products and services governmentwide and by giving them the ability to team with other schedule holders to provide solutions they could not otherwise offer.

He added that he receives daily calls from representatives from small businesses who are frustrated by the delay created by SBA. "We've been shut down now as far as allowing more small businesses to come into the program," he said.

Roussel said SBA officials proposed strategies such as requiring agencies operating in specified geographical regions to purchase specified schedule items from small businesses. "They turned us down flat on that notion," Roussel said.

SBA then argued for language in the solicitation "encouraging the use of small businesses" but did not ask GSA to set aside any business, Roussel said. After FSS refused to budge on that strategy, SBA took its complaints to Barram.

Gormley said the language proposed by SBA runs counter to agencies' needs to make best-value determinations on their GSA schedule buys. He also said FSS is not authorized to include such recommendations in its solicitations. "We don't think we should be establishing policy through a procurement," he said.

Vendors are concerned that the delay will make it difficult for GSA to award contracts in time for the March 1999 expiration of the current B/C schedule contracts. Larry Allen, executive director of the Coalition for Government Procurement, said vendors—- unsure of the status of their schedule contracts after next March—- are concerned over their ability to negotiate future blanket purchase agreements with agencies.

The situation has only exacerbated an already tense relationship between vendors and FSS contracting personnel, Allen said. "The level of contractors' consternation is higher now than any time since the schedules were moved to the Federal Supply Service," he said.

Olga Grkavac, senior vice president with the Information Technology Association of America's Systems Integration Division, said her members have been complaining for months about FSS' behavior. "Our members are not very happy," she said. "They never get calls [to FSS] returned; contracting officers' voice mailboxes are always full. It takes a full six months to get a modification on price adjustment."

Allen said he has noted "a fundamental disconnect" between FSS management that has promised positive changes to the program and the agency's "rank and file" whose treatment of vendors borders on contempt.

Gormley said he was aware of the vendors' frustration and said many of the problems resulted from a lack of contracting personnel to handle the growth of the IT schedule. He said the amount of work performed by each employee has made it difficult for the organization to meet all of the demands put upon it by industry.

"I wish there was a way we could hire people off a multiple-award schedule," Gormley quipped.

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