GSA mulls Advantage changes

The General Services Administration's Federal Supply Service has met with industry associations over the past month to discuss plans to decentralize the agency's GSA Advantage electronic commerce system and allow vendors to maintain their own sales databases for products and services on multiple-award schedule contracts.

The Advantage program, which allows agencies to order online from companies holding GSA schedule contracts, has been unpopular among vendors who would prefer the government order products the same way as vendors' private-sector customers, said Ken Salaets, director of government affairs at the Information Technology Industry Council, which represents some of the largest U.S. providers of information technology products and services.

Salaets said private-sector customers who purchase IT products and services electronically usually log on to vendors' World Wide Web sites and order directly. He said these procedures do not require the transactions and negotiations associated with ordering from GSA Advantage.

Salaets said he believes GSA officials have been sympathetic to the concerns of his and other industry groups that believe the procedures associated with posting product information on GSA Advantage are cumbersome. He said vendors have told GSA officials that they would prefer a system that would direct customers to the companies' own Web sites and allow them to order products there.

"We sense significant prog-ress being made on GSA Advantage," Salaets said. "I think GSA is getting closer to a commercial model in which GSA Advantage may appear to go away. Instead, it will create an environment where agencies can literally go to our Web sites and click on a button the same way our commercial customers do."

Ed O'Hare, deputy chief information officer at FSS, said some vendors already operate Web sites that allow federal customers to order schedule items online. But he said GSA maintains a database of all of the products on GSA Advantage, and vendors are required to notify the agency each time they change a listing in their catalogs. Consequently, GSA must invest time and money to track hundreds of thousands of schedule items, and vendors have to complete thousands of electronic data interchange transactions to notify GSA of price changes to schedule items, O'Hare said.

Vendors have been pressing GSA for a decentralized system that would allow them to maintain their own databases on their schedule catalogs and free them from the red tape associated with GSA Advantage. O'Hare said such a system would also benefit GSA. "We just wouldn't have the overhead of maintaining this large database and all of the EDI transactions with vendors," he said.

O'Hare said GSA and other agencies have been working with CommerceNet, a consortium of IT companies and agencies, to establish a decentralized electronic commerce architecture for GSA Advantage and other federal systems. He said he expected within a year to begin selling laptops via GSA Advantage using the new decentralized model.

Salaets and Allen credited O'Hare, who FSS designated this year to lead the effort to upgrade GSA Advantage, for the new mindset within the agency. "I think the coalition has a fair amount of confidence in Ed O'Hare and that he knows what the problems are and will come up with a solution," Allen said.

Salaets said the momentum for the change to a new commercial model for GSA Advantage appears strong within the agency, but he added that some GSA officials still oppose the idea. "We are moving into an environment that is very foreign to the government mindset, so there is resistance," he said.

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