FTS pledges improvement

Federal Technology Service officials met Dec. 16 with members of three congressional committees in an effort to keep Congress apprised of the agency's progress in reducing contract abuse. At the meetings, the officials discussed a newly released set of reports from the General Services Administration's inspector general detailing slipshod practices at many of FTS' Client Support Centers (CSCs) nationwide.

During three separate meetings, the officials met with the House Government Reform Committee, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Armed Services Committee. The Senate Armed Services Committee was not able to meet but may call the officials back after the holidays, FTS Commissioner Sandy Bates said.

Bates participated in the meetings, along with deputy chief acquisition officer David Drabkin, assistant commissioner for information technology solutions Bob Suda and Lester Gray, deputy commissioner of the Federal Supply Service.

"The purpose of the meeting was to provide an overview of the audit reports," Bates said. "They were all appreciative of the heads-up. It's too early for anybody to formulate a reaction."

Some members of Congress, including Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), have expressed concerns about a widespread pattern of apparent disregard for contracting rules among the regional offices, documented in the compendium of reports. GSA officials have taken a number of measures during the past year to stop the abuses, and the inspector general's study suggests that some of those efforts might have begun to take effect by May, the last month included in the study.

A new survey under way now will show if the even more aggressive efforts that officials launched in the second half of 2004 will yield immediate benefits, said David Bibb, GSA deputy administrator.

"Over the past seven months, every FTS associate whose work impacts CSCs has been engaged," in training, auditing and other remediation efforts, Bibb said. Each of GSA's 11 regions has one CSC, which serves as the nerve center of that region's FTS business.

Agency officials have implemented several new measures, including a Web-based acquisition-planning wizard to help field officers ensure they're not skipping any steps, mandatory legal reviews for all contracts and task orders worth more than $5 million that come through the centers, and renewed emphasis on using fixed-price contracts as much as possible. Officials now rate employee performance on a five-level scale rather than the old pass/fail approach, and new procedures require CSC employees to talk to customers about their expectations and keep demands reasonable, Bibb added.

In addition, FTS and Defense Department officials launched the Get It Right program in July. DOD customers accounted for about 85 percent of the business that the CSCs conducted in fiscal 2004.

"We did find that improvements aren't equal across the CSCs, and that there are areas where we still need to improve," Bibb added. But the latest inspector general reports contain no new recommendations, he said, suggesting that the efforts under way are enough to satisfy the investigative office.

Bibb said it would be difficult to assess whether the reports suggest a widespread problem. The probe considered only 332 task orders, and those were selected based on risk, according to the methodology description that assistant inspector general Eugene Waszily included in the compendium of reports.

Whether or not there is a pervasive pattern, Drabkin said, "We clearly had problems and had gotten sloppy in our contract administration."

The officials declined to speculate on whether Congress would try to pass legislation to force better performance. Davis has previously said that he intends to study the way GSA's structure in 2005.

However, Drabkin said he did not think any legislative effort is needed. "The issue isn't that we didn't have rules or processes in place in most cases," he said. "It's that we weren't following them."

The collection of reports held no surprises for longtime observers, said Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement. Essentially, he said, they showed that problems detected earlier in three regions were not isolated.

"It's basically the second chapter in the same book," Allen said.

Compendium of Audits of the Federal Technology Service Regional Client Centershttp://staging.gsa.gov/gsa/cm_attachments/GSA_DOCUMENT/COMPENDIUM_R2-sM2T_0Z5RDZ-i34K-pR.pdf

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