Knowing the price is right

The federal government is getting another lesson in competition. Procurement reform in the mid-1990s focused largely on creating more competition in government contracting to ensure that federal agencies received the best possible rates on products and services.

Now Congress wants to know if the ensuing proliferation of governmentwide acquisition contracts has created so much confusion that agency contracting officers cannot tell if they are getting the best buy or not.

A hearing held earlier this month by a subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee looked specifically at the overlap between services offered by the General Services Administration's Federal Supply Service and Federal Technology Service.

The hearing also opened the door to re-evaluating the role — and value — of other governmentwide contracts, including the National Institutes of Health's Electronic Computer Store II and the Transportation Department's Information Technology Omnibus Procurement II.

The concern is not misplaced. The argument for allowing agencies to create numerous governmentwide contracts was to foster competition, leading to better service, quicker delivery of technologies and lower prices — just like the private sector. Congress has every right to question whether it's working, or whether this contracting bazaar is just draining time and money.

Competition, feds are realizing, can be messy, but that's not the problem here.

Rather than reduce competition — what Congress calls overlap and duplication — let's put competition and technology to work for agencies, the way such companies as Travelocity.com LP and Orbitz LLC have done for the airline industry. Why not develop a similar online system that helps agencies compare the deals available through various governmentwide contracts?

Such a broker system, not unlike GSA's Advantage Web site, would foster more competition — as seen with airline fares — and, better yet, smarter shoppers. Rather than roll back procurement reform, let's take another step forward.

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