Turning GSA around

The agency can again take on the role of facilitator between government buyers and industry

While in Arlington, Va., recently, I asked a contracting officer at the General Services Administration for directions to the new Federal Supply Service (FSS) Acquisition Management Center.

“Oh, but I’m leaving,” she answered.

I raised my eyebrows and grinned. She quickly added, “Oh, no. Not for good. I mean just for lunch.” She pointed me through a set of glass double doors and toward the elevator.

It’s not news that a massive fault line runs straight through the bedrock of government procurement. Quakes and tremors have rocked the government information technology industry for nearly two years. The media has widely recounted allegations of contractual abuses. GSA and Defense Department inspectors general have criticized oversight and management of Federal Technology Service and FSS contracts.

GSA has disclosed that FTS’ governmentwide acquisition contract program has been losing money — nearly $3 billion in the past two years. Those losses will force GSA to reduce its staff by 400 employees as part of the pending creation of the Federal Acquisition Service (FAS).

It is hardly a shock to industry that GWACs are not succeeding. As a consultant, I often hear the same frustrations expressed: “Have you seen how many labor categories they want? Have you read the statement of work? They have no idea what they want. DOD says it can’t use the contract. IRS, HHS or fill in the blank says it won’t use the contract.”

All is not well at FSS either. The fact that the ink is black instead of red eases some of the discomfort. Despite a dip in sales on IT contracts, overall sales at FSS increased by about 5 percent, or $1.7 billion. IT sales dropped by 1.5 percent, which was about $250 million.

But the Get It Right program GSA launched to repair damage caused by the revelation of procurement abuses and scandals appears to have created its own shockwaves. Get It Right was a public relations campaign and a policy of zero tolerance for procurement errors. GSA’s contracting officers, agencies and vendors were thrust into that new environment without adequate preparation and training.

Since GSA started the campaign, its top leaders have been defecting, leaving the acquisition center directors and contracting officers with little support or guidance other than, “Go forward and commit no mistake, or face an auditor for certain. P.S.: My retirement lunch is on Tuesday.” Is it any wonder that contracting officers have been in a collective bad mood for 18 months? Now we all face a new challenge. The Senate is close to approving the merger of FTS and FSS into FAS. Will the key players settle into place and provide long-term leadership and solutions? Will GSA take on its role as facilitator between vendors and buyers once again? I believe it will for at least two reasons.

Jeffrey Koses, FAS’ acting assistant commissioner for acquisition management, seems intent on making the merger work. And the schedule contract program is an important tool for government buyers.

The challenges will be greater on the GWAC side because GSA has more ground to recover. But the new leaders are poised to take the necessary steps to improve communications and education and offer solutions.

In return, the beneficiaries of GSA’s contracts — companies and agencies alike — must step forward and do our part. We must help make the programs work through ongoing discussions and an honest effort at compliance and outreach.

Nelson is vice president of EZGSA.

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