GSA creates virtual contracting school

The General Services Administration has created a virtual university to help federal employees who have been given the freedom to order products and services from contracts without having received training in the procurement process.

Many people using the multiple-award schedule contracts of GSA's Federal Supply Service are not contracting officers, so they can get confused with the options and methods of contracting, said Gail Hausworth, director of the commercial acquisition policy center at FSS.

"The customer that used to use MAS in the past is no longer the only one we have to serve," she said. "Anybody can be a MAS customer now, whether it's a secretary with a credit card or a manager in charge of a program budget."

That's where the U-MAS Virtual Campus (pub.fss.gsa.gov/schedules/index.html) comes in.

Most of the information that federal employees need to order from the schedules has been made available on the main FSS World Wide Web site, including "Basic Schedule Ordering Guidelines" and the "Benefits of Schedules" pages. But this information can get complex, especially for people who are not used to contracting language and simply want to buy, for example, a desktop computer, Hausworth said.

GSA has been holding seminars and conferences across the country to teach federal employees how to use the schedule, presenting the information in an environment where people can ask questions and see examples instead of just reading page after page of contracting-language text. Many federal workers cannot get to these seminars, however, and even more prefer to learn on their own. So Hausworth's office set out to create another option.

U-MAS is not intended to replace GSA's more formal online university, the Federal Acquisition Institute, Hausworth said. In fact, everything was developed separately, mostly from looking at other agencies' online training sites.

"Basically we're trying to find another way to provide customer training," she said.

The U-MAS site is set up to make the information as easy as possible to read and understand, which was no small task. The policy office needed a lot of creativity to explain why contracting works the way it does, Hausworth said.

One way GSA tried this was by using university metaphors. The U-MAS Virtual Campus offers a campus map featuring buildings that focus on the different types of contracting.

Clicking on the buildings presents information in text, which Hausworth and her team spent a lot of time breaking down into manageable pieces and language.

The campus tour explains that Building 1 houses registration and orientation. Orientation includes three "courses" to familiarize users with terminology and concepts: "Introduction to Federal Supply Schedules," "Understanding Schedules" and "Commercial Practices Adopted into the Schedules Program."

For now, registration is optional because FSS did not want people to feel forced into using the program, Hausworth said. That may change in the future, however, because FSS has received questions on whether the "courses" can be given formal certification, which would require registration, tracking and testing processes, Hausworth said.

Building 2, which houses courses explaining ordering procedures, is the heart of the program. It includes a brief version of the basic ordering guidelines, but there are two "wings" under development on how to order services and how to develop performance-based statements of work.

"We want to get everything up as soon as possible, but we're trying to work more on the performance-based side since that seems to be more important for people to really understand right now," Hausworth said.

FSS recently opened two more buildings: the U-MAS Gazette and the Business Trade Center. The Gazette building houses the "ABCs of Multiple-Award Schedule Purchasing," a PDF file that can be downloaded as a reference document. The Business Trade Center provides a Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint presentation from a recent conference, "Doing Business with GSA."

Other buildings, which will house contractor teaming and best practices, are under construction.

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