Los Alamos rapped on IT buys

Los Alamos National Laboratory could be a more frugal shopper when it comes to buying computers, printers and digital cameras, according to a report released this week by the General Accounting Office.

The GAO examined how the contractor that operates the lab, the University of California, made replacement purchases for equipment lost in the May 2000 fire that damaged some equipment in Los Alamos. The agency reviewed 17 replacement items — an assortment of computers, printers and digital cameras — and found that the lab could have saved money by modifying its purchasing practices in three areas:

* Expanding its supply sources, including greater use of the General Services Administration.

* Establishing mandatory maximum performance standards.

* Increasing the use of a standard brand of computer and computer-related equipment.

The GAO review showed that Los Alamos could have saved about 25 percent on certain items by using more supply sources, including GSA Advantage and other Internet-based sites, as opposed to the three local vendors it used.

Officials at the lab said their contract with the Energy Department encourages, but does not require using GSA services to purchase equipment. After receiving an advanced copy of the findings, Los Alamos officials said they would give greater consideration to using GSA for future purchases. DOE's response also noted that the Los Alamos purchases were made during a regional disaster and that the agency "places a high value on supporting regional socioeconomic development."

Los Alamos currently uses minimum voluntary performance standards for its desktop and laptop computer acquisitions, but it does not employ maximum standards for things such as microprocessor speeds or memory size.

DOE's Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory uses mandatory standards for computers and has saved money using the system. That arrangement "may represent a best practice that could be used by Los Alamos," the GAO report stated.

DOE said that performance standards for computers and related equipment "could potentially affect programmatic or mission requirements."

The use of a standard brand of computers in two Los Alamos divisions — business operations, and facility and waste operations — has reduced costs in those areas, but lab officials said the purchases made after the fire were meant to be identical to what had been in place before, and uniformity across the facility would not meet its needs for diverse applications in experimental work.

GAO performed the review from August 2000 through March 2001 at DOE headquarters and Los Alamos.

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