A new deal

As the Pentagon continues to buy more hardware and software using government charge cards, the Air Force has teamed with the General Services Administration to see if a tailor-made version of its GSA Advantage online purchasing system can fix some of the problems that go along with the streamlined buying process.

The project, known as Air Force Advantage, is the first case in which GSA has customized Advantage, a Web-based catalog of more than 3 million Federal Supply Service (FSS) products and offerings from more than 10,000 vendors.

Such a system, now being tested at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, could help the service limit abuse by creating a more visible audit trail, which Air Force officials could use to track how the service buys and uses hardware and software.

If the project works out, the Air Force hopes to funnel as many of its charge card purchases as possible through the new system. And other agencies are likely to be watching closely.

The pilot project's overall objective is to evaluate the feasibility of using an e-government purchase card solution, said Tom Wells, deputy director of contracting for Air Force Materiel Command headquarters at Wright-Patterson.

The Air Force is a good place to test the concept because the service uses the cards for $1.3 billion in purchases per year but is not able to track the purchases across the agency, Wells said.

Almost simultaneously, the Small Business Administration's SBA Exchange, a program to provide small and local businesses with electronic storefronts that will link into Air Force Advantage, was launched Oct. 30.

Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc. and a former Air Force procurement executive, said the impact of the pilot program "can be massive," when considering that private-sector firms are reporting about 20 percent savings using similar tools.

"In the past, the government would take what they were doing and turn it into electrons," Mather said. "But that didn't harness the power of e-procurement tools. It sounds like the government and the Air Force are fully understanding how to do that."

He also said the pilot project will help free contracting officers from the work associated with today's long and tedious acquisition processes and allow them to focus more on the largest government contracts, instead of the more than 90 percent of buys that come in under $100,000.

He added that the Air Force made a good decision in starting with a pilot project and then introducing the systems at higher levels, but acknowledged that GSA Advantage is not the most user-friendly tool. "The hope is that each iteration gets a little better."

Genie in a Bottle

In many ways, government purchase cards are like Aladdin's magic lantern, fulfilling all sorts of wishes but introducing a whole new set of problems. The cards have streamlined "micropurchases," saving significant amounts of money. But with 25 million purchases annually totaling $14 billion, agencies often don't know who is buying what.

In the past, Defense Department card holders have frequented online gambling sites and purchased personal vacations and services from prostitutes with government credit cards.

The cards were introduced several years ago to make it easier for federal employees to buy items that cost less than $2,500. Because records of the purchases are consolidated in monthly statements provided by the banks that issue the credit cards, managers are supposed to have an easy way to keep track of employees' small purchases.

GSA is helping the Air Force collect data about what the service is buying with the credit cards, including tracking purchases from small, local and disadvantaged businesses and businesses run by people with disabilities.

GSA Advantage is tied to GSA schedule contracts, and many small and disadvantaged companies do not have the resources to get a GSA schedule contract, let alone get on GSA Advantage, said John Gilligan, the Air Force's chief information officer. "A single, integrated capability has got to have small and local businesses," he said.

Air Force Advantage is the "first project to customize Advantage...and is being done on a pilot basis," said Pat Mead, deputy assistant commissioner for acquisition at FSS. "We're developing functionality incrementally."

Both the Air Force and GSA are tracking usage of the Air Force Advantage site and deciding whether the pilot project makes sense for other agencies. Furthermore, officials will determine if the site provides the Air Force with the data they need to better manage credit card purchases, Mead said. "The Air Force can manage the workflow and get business intelligence out the other end."

BroadVision Inc., which provides the platform that enables GSA to customize GSA Advantage, could use the same technology to customize applications for other agencies.

"Our architecture is very open and supports the [Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java 2 Enterprise Edition] platform," said Phil Cooke, vice president of BroadVision's federal division. "A lot of what we did for GSA Advantage is easily customized for the DOD folks. The codes are re-usable or easily modifiable to add functionality for [new] customers."

Culture Shock

Wells said the pilot project was launched in January and is being carried out in a series of incremental releases. Each iteration will offer additional capabilities, he said.

By January 2003, officials expect the site to include capabilities such as business intelligence features to manage and track credit card purchases, blanket purchase agreement pricing and workflow. About 1,300 purchase card holders work at Wright-Patterson — and some have more than one account — but the user community includes "any person with a requirement that can do the shopping online and put it in a shopping cart for the card holder to review and then buy," Wells said. "Before, that required a phone call or yellow sticky to the card holder."

Culture change has been a challenge so far, he said. The Air Force surveyed users and found that many of them do not use the Internet for home shopping needs, so "we're getting people used to shopping differently," he said. "We have spent a lot of time training people and getting users used to the concept."

GSA is refining an "e-purchase log" that automatically records purchases in a database so Air Force officials know exactly what is being bought from whom and when.

Such tracking should help the Air Force avoid the much-publicized credit card abuse that has plagued DOD in recent months.

Mead said the e-purchase log allows users to manually enter purchases that are made outside the scope of the pilot project. Such purchases are then added to the central collection database for all purchases made on Air Force Advantage. In the future, purchases made through SBA Exchange will also be included.

"Automatically recording purchases in a corporate database" that includes the who, what, when and where of a transaction, "that's a big deal for us," Wells said.

The service also will eventually set business rules so that when a user signs on to Air Force Advantage, the site will automatically highlight information about certain products and services sold by small or disadvantaged businesses or companies run by people with disabilities, Mead said.

"The Air Force can force spending in certain areas if that's what they want to do," she said.

Demand for Improvements

Currently, buyers are not required to use Air Force Advantage, and the number of users is smaller than program officials had hoped, Wells said, spurring the pilot team to ask potential users why they were not using the system.

In general, users said that the site needs to be easier to use and should include pictures of items. GSA is in the process of adding visual aids as a result of that feedback, Wells said.

Users also said that they need to buy products and services that are not available on the site, such as training courses. Air Force officials are working with GSA officials to address those needs.

Mark Amtower, a partner with Amtower and Co. in Ashton, Md., admits that he is not a fan of GSA Advantage and was not surprised by the survey feedback requesting that the tool be made more user-friendly.

"GSA Advantage is cumbersome, it's difficult to find things...[and] it's not intuitive," Amtower said. "Rather than customizing it...GSA should spend some money and make it easier to use."

Amtower said the buyers at Wright-Patterson most likely already have preferred Web sites that they frequently visit, including some run by small businesses, and that the Air Force Advantage pilot project is just adding another layer to that process. He added that he didn't see a problem with Air Force personnel buying products or services in person if a local business does not have a Web site.

Amtower said purchase cards were adopted to save time and money; adding another layer to the process through Air Force Advantage will not attain those goals.

"It's not a bad concept. It's a bad direction," he said. "GSA Advantage takes a lot of time [to use], and good Web sites like Dell [Computer Corp.], GTSI [Corp.] and CDW-G [Inc.] don't. If the Air Force wants to do something truly intelligent, they should have card holders list [preferred] vendors on the Air Force intranet, places where they can go and buy stuff quickly."

Wells said the near-term priorities for Air Force Advantage are:

* Continuing to reach out to the non-GSA schedule providers that are important to the Wright-Patterson community, which is currently being addressed through the partnership with SBA.

* Working with GSA to add features to the e-purchase log and then deciding whether to manage it internally or pay GSA to do it.

* Building BPA pricing into Air Force Advantage, which is also the goal of another pilot project being conducted by GSA and DOD.

"We're working with limited resources...[but] we're very happy with the progress," Wells said.

GSA officials had always planned to create customized versions of GSA Advantage, Mead said, and the agency does not track the costs of creating the specialized site for the Air Force pilot project. "The GSA will come up with something at some point if we decide to charge for it, but not at the moment, as it's still in such a prototype state," she said.

GSA officials are also willing to talk to other agencies interested in a customized Advantage, but there must be a good reason for such an effort.

By January 2003, the project should be far enough along that GSA officials can decide if future projects are warranted, she said.


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