Procurement reform's pitfalls

At first glance, recent reports of a slow start to the FTS 2001 telecommunications program might be surprising. After all, the General Services Administration launched FTS 2001 nine months ago with much fanfare, promising that increased competition would bring agencies quick access to new technology and lower costs for services.

But the only surprise is how quickly we can forget how procurement reform works - and how it doesn't.

FTS 2001 clearly is a landmark advance in government procurement. For many years, agencies were forced to buy long-distance phone service from a single vendor or, more recently, to choose from two vendors. But unlike its predecessors, FTS 2001 is not mandatory, which means the two contractors, MCI WorldCom and Sprint, compete with the rest of the telecommunications market, not just with each other.

This increased competition seemingly should have helped avoid the frustratingly slow transition to the new program and the delayed availability of new services complained about by agencies.

But the new procurement environment is more complex. By and large, Congress and the White House have streamlined procurement by relaxing acquisition regulations, not by writing new rules. Agencies and industry can cut through a lot of the bureaucracy that existed in past years, but only by consciously choosing to take advantage of their new freedom. It is a leap, not a natural progression.

Just as easily, though, they can fall back into old patterns, which appears to be the case with FTS 2001. The kinds of problems that have come up - slow movement by agencies to choose a contractor and begin the transition, inadequate staffing by agencies and red tape at GSA - will not go away simply because rules have been relaxed.

The good news is that a looming deadline will force agencies to make the switch, so the government will at least see the lower costs that have been promised.

Realizing other benefits, such as the addition of new technology and services to the program, require a switch of another kind. As with any other procurement initiative, the government and its partners must make a joint decision to bring about substantive change to its telecommunications program.

Otherwise, in another sense of the word, talk is cheap.

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