Cautious enthusiasm for OMB's mobile consolidation plan

Federal CIOs and industry analysts see potential savings -- and potential problems -- with an emerging OMB policy that would compel agency IT managers to use GSA's mobile contracts.

Shutterstock image: mobile enterprise.

The Office of Management and Budget is reportedly drafting a policy that would ban new agency contracts for mobile services and devices in favor of centralized contracts. The move would bring the federal government in line with what large corporations have been doing for years to cut sprawling costs for mobile services and devices, but it would also bring some of the same headaches, according to federal CIOs and industry analysts.

OMB declined to comment on the draft policy, but the office issued similar policy proposals and guidance late last year that would centralize contracting efforts for software and laptop computers.

Similarly, the draft mobile policy, first reported by Federal News Radio, would reportedly bar agencies from drafting their own mobile contracts in favor of the General Services Administration's Enterprise Mobility solutions.

Tom Suder, president of Mobilegov, is enthusiastic about the new policy direction. He said remote departments and offices have had too much latitude in buying mobile services and devices, resulting in overpaying and management risks.

"If you don't have a central inventory with every single phone in the department, you're getting ripped off," Suder told FCW.

Federal agencies have been gravitating toward GSA's Federal Strategic Sourcing Initiative wireless blanket purchase agreements since they were announced in 2013, according to GSA officials. In a blog post in early January, Mary Davie, assistant commissioner of GSA's Office of Integrated Technology Services, said 85 percent of federal agencies are now using them, and in fiscal 2015, that use jumped 500 percent over fiscal 2014 levels.

GSA officials wouldn't comment on the draft OMB guidance but pointed to the savings its centralized mobility contracts are already achieving and its plans to hone them further to accommodate growing needs and advancing technology.

"GSA has had great success with our Enterprise Mobility program, which is currently seeing about a 26 percent savings rate off the previous average government pricing," said Davie in a statement emailed to FCW. "We are looking forward to taking the program to the next generation and recently took steps to launch the Mobility 2.0 initiative in collaboration with OMB and our customer agencies."

According to longtime commercial wireless industry analyst Roger Entner, large corporations have used centralized enterprise buying plans for years to focus their buying power and reduce costs. But that approach has limited their choice of devices and services, which can drive some IT managers to look for ways to get around such a policy.

Although he said the emerging OMB policy could offer great pricing advantages for a customer as large as the federal government, the desire to work around it could creep in at some level if the policy becomes reality.

In the business world, "there's always a senior executive who thinks he's special," said Entner, who is founder and lead analyst at wireless industry consulting firm Recon Analytics. "That 'special snowflake' has to be melted down. Senior-level 'special snowflakes' can take longer to melt."

He added that wireless network coverage could also be an issue for agencies that have offices in remote areas of the country, where the choice of service providers is limited.

One agency CIO was optimistic about the move but had some concerns. The executive, who communicated on background, said encouraging reuse of existing contracts "makes sense if the contracts don't charge agencies too much overhead and were transparent about costs."

Additionally, contracts must be easy to use and come with the right options. If the policy goes forward, OMB would have to monitor GSA to ensure that officials are "focused on providing good quality contracts, sufficient options to agencies, and are charging a very low and transparent overhead that doesn't erode any of the advantages of a bulk, multi-agency purchasing vehicle."

The CIO added, "I hope we'll be able to procure wireless services faster and at a cheaper price, as long as GSA makes sure we can get devices to our stakeholder-users in the field rapidly. If we have to wait three to five days for turnaround on providing a new user with a new device, that might be problematic. OMB may want to have metrics that monitor GSA's quality of service and speed of delivery, too."

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