Senators press OFPP chief on mandatory BPAs

Officials disagree about mandating the use of certain purchasing agreements even for the most ordinary items, such as office supplies.

Two senators were baffled recently by the notion that agencies are not required to use a specific governmentwide purchasing agreement for office supplies to get a lower price and save money.

“I don’t get why you don’t just say you have to,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Contracting Oversight Subcommittee, said at a hearing June 30 about interagency contracting. “Can’t the president just say, ‘Executive Branch, you guys have to buy office supplies through this purchasing mechanism’?”

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, said the government needs to let people know what the consequences are if they do not buy from a specific contract. “If we don’t draw the line in the sand, it will not get done,” he said.

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McCaskill questioned Daniel Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), about why the administration doesn’t simply tell agencies they must use certain blanket purchase agreements (BPAs) to buy office supplies. OFPP and the General Services Administration recently awarded BPAs for those supplies.

“If we were a business, we would have done this decades ago, because we would have cared how much money we spent,” she said.

Gordon said vendors told government officials in negotiations for the BPAs that they wanted written agreements that federal agencies would use these BPAs to buy their office supplies. The government awarded BPAs to 11 small businesses and Office Depot, the one large business. After hearing from suppliers, officials had agencies sign letters of commitment, saying their purchasers would, in fact, use these BPAs. The government committed to spend more than $250 million annually for office supplies through those BPAs, Gordon said.

Strategic sourcing is a program the government uses to leverage its power as a massive purchaser to get lower prices from vendors.

The OFPP and senior procurement officials from other agencies are driving toward setting up more strategic sourcing BPAs, Gordon said. He and Vivek Kundra, the federal chief information officer, are working on the next strategic sourcing purchasing line, which will be for information technology, one of the richest targets of the program, Gordon said.

Responding to McCaskill, Gordon said he didn’t want agencies to be breaking the law for not using those BPAs. However, Gordon said he does want these BPAs to be the default contracts through which to buy office supplies.

“I’m not sure we need to make it illegal to buy elsewhere,” because of all sorts of special circumstances can arise, Gordon told McCaskill, who was still surprised by the thought.

At a speech in March, Gordon said he doesn’t favor mandatory strategic-sourcing BPAs.

“The mandatory route was tried for a couple of decades, and I think most people would tell you that it was somewhat problematic,” he said. A similar mandate would not be helpful today, he said.

McCaskill disagreed with Gordon’s view.

“I think you’re going to be disappointed unless you don’t make it illegal,” she said.

John Needham, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office, who testified with Gordon, said agencies have struggled in the past to use BPAs. He said contracting officers must have some incentive to use the BPAs.

OFPP and officials from other agencies are working to make contracting officers more aware of the BPAs for office supplies and what contracts offer. Officials also intend to check up on agencies through better data.

“We are moving out right now on that front,” Gordon said.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.


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