GSA short on customer input

Customer’s wish list

Eldred Jackson, deputy director of administration at the Justice Department’s Justice Program Office, told the panel what he’d like from the General Services Administration and its Multiple Award Schedules program.

1. Better direction when task orders span several schedule contracts.

2. Visits from GSA contracting officers.

3. More emphasis on the relationship between government and contracting officers.

4. Training for vendors on marketing their schedules contracts.

5. More GSA service after the sale.

- Matthew Weigelt

Government and industry have willingly and generously shared their opinions on improving the General Services Administration’s schedules program, but the most important constituency has been relatively silent.

In four meetings that the Multiple Award Schedules Advisory Panel has held since May, only one customer agency has spoken before the panel, Eldred Jackson, deputy director of administration at the Justice Department’s Justice Program Office.

Among other things, Jackson told the panel that GSA officials should give him better direction in using the schedules, especially when a task spans several different schedule contracts. Then the agency should follow up, he said.

“Agencies should not feel that after a task order is awarded they are on their own,” he said. “Unfortunately, some contracting officers believe that GSA is only interested in revenue in lieu of customer service.” Panel members jotted notes and listened as Jackson spoke.

The day after Jackson spoke, panel members compiled a list of other customer agencies to invite to speak. They want to hear from large departments and small agencies, and they are seeking perspectives from a variety of agency employees tasked with purchasing goods and services.

“That’s where the rubber meets the road,” said Thedlus Thompson, panel member and senior assistant general counsel at GSA.

The panel will be sending out invitations with a list of questions for customers to address. Here are the questions reflecting the panel’s main interests.

  • Do you consider a best value to include more than price?

  • What do you expect from GSA’s schedules?

  • Do the schedules meet your needs?

  • Do you believe the schedules give you the best price?

In interviews, several government officials said best value comprises more than price.

Jackie Patillo, deputy chief information officer at the Transportation Department, said the key ingredient of best value is the suitability of the product or service for the purpose. The buyer might spend a little more money, but that’s fine if the end result is getting the option that is best able to meet the agency’s needs.

Competition is important for the government and is a major component of best value, said Linda Cureton, CIO at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. She said NASA has GSA’s schedules as one of several means of buying what it needs. NASA also uses its Solutions for Enterprisewide Procurements governmentwide acquisition contract for information technology products. NASA’s contract is a competitor to GSA’s IT contracts.

Karen Evans, Office of Management and Budget administrator for e-government and IT, said best value to her includes price and simplicity. The vehicle has to be fast and easy to use, she said.

Two members of the advisory panel, who represent major departments and schedules users, said they don’t believe the schedules offer customers the best possible prices.

Thomas Sharpe Jr., panel member and senior procurement executive at the Treasury Department, said the prices were not as low as some contractors give their most favored customers, something that should be mandated under the Price Reduction Clauses. Sharpe said GSA has not provided any quantifiable data to refute his belief.

“I have no confidence in the pricing structure,” Sharpe said. “Big sales at a bad price is a big problem.”

Thomas Essig, panel member and chief procurement officer at the Homeland Security Department, has similar concerns as Sharpe. He said companies competing for a task order under the schedules program often offer lower prices than the contract reflects. The fact that they can further reduce their prices shows that the original contract price may not be fair and reasonable.

But GSA representatives on the panel defended the schedules’ pricing. Jacqueline Jones, branch chief and contracting officer at GSA, said the negotiated prices, which are aligned with a contractor’s commercial customer who receives the lowest prices, prove that GSA is getting the best price from the contractor.

By getting contractors to agree to the original contract price, GSA contracting officers would say they’ve negotiated the most favorable prices they can get from vendors, she said.

Furthermore, Jones said sales, which officials say are on the upswing, indicate agencies believe schedules have good prices. Steve Kempf, assistant commissioner for acquisition management in GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service, said sales are up 5 percent this year compared to the same period in 2007. At the end of 2007, the program had more than $36 billion in sales, Kempf said.

Lesa Scott, panel member and director of IT schedule contract operations of the Integrated Technology Service at GSA, said GSA Advantage, an online catalog of the more than 17,000 schedule contracts, allows customers to compare prices and find the best deal.

Confidence in prices is the key to what the panel may recommend to the GSA administrator, officials say. If the panel doesn’t answer the question about whether the schedules’ prices are lowest — or even fair and reasonable — the program’s future may be in doubt, said Jan Frye, panelist and deputy assistant secretary in Office of Acquisition and Logistics at the Veteran Affairs Department.

Larry Allen, panel member and president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, said the schedules prices are reasonable, but the schedules cannot guarantee them to be the absolute lowest.

Beyond pricing, Justice’s Jackson said the schedules would be more effective if GSA did more to train schedule contract holders about the program. Too many companies still believe that getting a GSA schedule contract means work will start flowing through the doors, he said. They sometimes contact agencies with the apparent expectation that the agencies are obligated to hire them.

“The dictionary is the only place where ‘success’ comes before ‘work,’” Jackson said.

Contractors need to effectively market their services, he said, but “GSA has failed a vendor and the government contract community if a contract is not renewed because of a lack of sales or revenue by a vendor.” It leaves the agencies with one less option and fewer competitors for work.

Finding a groove
Panel members seem to have struggled in the past few meetings to get a clear sense of direction. Soon after the panel’s fourth meeting was called to order, panelist Glenn Perry, senior procurement executive at the Education Department, said he still was unsure about where the panel was headed.

But the advisory panel now may have found its groove. After six long hours of discussion and plenty of visible frustration, panel members honed in on a few areas they want to address in upcoming meetings and get insight from customers.

The panel narrowed its attention to five areas: pricing, stakeholders’ view of the program, the panel’s expectations, the program’s business model, and whether the program actually gets agencies the same price from a contractor as its most favored customer.

Panelists agreed the invitations and data from GSA will shape what comes next for the schedules program.

Former GSA Administrator Lurita Doan commissioned the advisory panel in April to give independent advice and recommendations to GSA related to pricing of the schedules program. The panel must submit recommendations to the GSA administrator by Nov. 5. 


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