GAO: GSA lacks purchase card data

"Contract Management: Government Faces Challenges in Gathering Socioeconomic Data on Purchase Card Merchants"

The socio-economic data that the General Services Administration collects to determine the impact that government purchase cards have on small businesses is inconsistent and incomplete, according to a General Accounting Office report.

The report concluded that GSA's data collection was so inconsistent that "no meaningful conclusions can be drawn at this time about where agencies spend purchase card dollars or the effect of purchase cards on small businesses."

The banks and card providers that GSA works through are supposed to collect the data under GSA's direction.

In fiscal 2001, agencies spent about $13.8 billion using government purchase cards, which are government-issued credit cards designed to help agencies save millions of dollars by speeding up and streamlining small and routine buys. The funds went to individual purchases — most under $2,500 — and to payments on contracts.

However, those purchases don't count toward agency socio-economic goals of awarding 23 percent of prime contract funds to small businesses, and the ineffective data collection hinders attempts to gauge the impact of purchase cards.

The report laid much of the blame at GSA's feet. "Due to GSA's lack of clear definitions and guidancethe banks and payment card associations — MasterCard and Visa — interpreted the initial data request differently and reported the data inconsistently," the GAO report stated. However, there are other challenges, including privacy concerns and the refusal of some merchants to report their information, GAO added.

Most small businesses want to cooperate, said Hope Lane, director of GSA Schedule Services for consulting firm Aronson and Co. in Rockville, Md. They stand to gain business if the government can track purchase card transactions more accurately.

"We see lots of [government] business going to small businesses," she said. "Companies that qualify [for incentive programs] are really looking to have that information out there."

The GAO report noted that GSA has been working since last spring to improve data collection, primarily the clarity of its communications.

Austin-Tetra Inc., an Irving, Texas-based consulting firm that MasterCard and Visa hired to help collect the data, told GAO that GSA would be able to get full information for 65 percent to 80 percent of the merchants at best because of other challenges beyond its control.

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