Neal Fox | GSA and DOD: new agreement, old mistakes

Contracting in Perspective

I wish I could say that the newly signed procurement agreement between GSA and the Defense Department will help bring DOD business back to GSA, but it won’t. In fact, it will do the opposite. Just like its predecessor, the failed Get it Right campaign of 2004-2005 (may it rest in peace), this new agreement will hurt GSA much more than it helps. And like a bad sequel to an equally bad first movie, “Get it Right II: Revenge of the IG” will go down as another GSA box office flop.

GSA will lose even more revenue by making its services harder for its largest customer to use; and it can ill afford such a stumble, given the loss of income to its assisted-services business line over the past couple of years. GSA has worked hard to improve its assisted services, so DOD would do well to use them. As its largest customer and overwhelmingly the biggest user of GSA assisted services over the years, DOD has been the focus of the agency’s attention lately. So an agreement would seem to be a good approach. But this latest GSA move is just another self-imposed setback. What went wrong?

To address the original issues—including illegally carrying agency funds from one fiscal year over to the next and violations of procurement rules by a few well-intentioned but misguided contracting officers—GSA instituted the Get it Right campaign in 2004. This public confession of organizational inadequacy became ridiculous in the extreme: If GSA acknowledged itself as bad, it must be really bad. As one can imagine, this backfired on GSA. And when the agency sought a remedy, it turned to—you guessed it—the same folks who authored and championed the failed Get it Right campaign. That is akin to asking the director of “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” to do a sequel.

This new agreement was apparently supposed to set procurement ground rules for the agencies. Sounds fine on the surface. But it will actually be harder for DOD to use GSA, since the agreement will thoroughly confuse working-level contracting officers while also imposing unnecessary new burdens on them. Confusion and additional workload means contracting officers will go someplace else where the rules are clearer. They will create more of their own contracts or use existing internal contracts, because lack of clarity creates personal risk at the working level. And contracting officers are among the most conservative and risk-averse people in government. So how does the new agreement create such confusion?

The agreement includes 22 provisions. Someone apparently thinks more is better, but that is rarely true of new rules. Some are fine, some merely agree to follow existing laws and rules, but others create confusing and unnecessary new requirements, and several provisions make no sense whatsoever. Imposing a set of onerous and confusing new rules on this risk-averse group is a recipe for disaster.

For instance, the agreement states that contracting officers must “ensure that price reasonableness determinations are completed on every contract or order either placed by DOD or by GSA on behalf of DOD.” That might sound harmless, but this one sentence sets aside what makes the GSA schedules work, namely that contracting officers can compare three vendor prices and make a purchase. Notice that the agreement does not state a dollar limit, such as for orders over a certain threshold, nor does it exempt the schedules’ unique ordering procedures that make them so useful to customers. How will contracting officers comply with this requirement? Can they still use the GSA schedules ordering procedures, or have they been set aside? Several other new provisions in the agreement require a DOD contracting officer to double-check every major decision and action by the GSA assisted-services contracting officer. Many DOD offices hire GSA because they don’t have their own contracting officers, so these offices will need to turn to other assisted-services organizations such as GovWorks, since the provision only applies to GSA assisted services.

Another provision requires DOD contracting officers to “ensure that contract surveillance and oversight requirements are defined, adequate and implemented when used in connection with a contract or order either issued by DOD or by GSA in support of DOD.” Now, tell me that a GS-12 contracting officer—or anyone else—knows what the heck that means and can assure their boss that they have actually complied with it. Can you spell r-i-s-k? That’s another word for disaster for GSA.

GSA may have unwittingly signed its own termination notice. GSA would say it needed to placate the IG, which has criticized GSA’s and DOD’s procurement practices. But that is no excuse for such poor execution, which will make this “Get it Right” sequel very painful to watch.

Neal Fox is a retired Air Force colonel and former GSA assistant commissioner for acquisition. He now leads Neal Fox Consulting. He can be reached at [email protected].

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