Mr. Sharpe: Tear down that (e-Buy) wall

Tom Sharpe, commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service, said over the summer the General Services Administration would make access to the e-Buy tool availa...

With all apologies to President Ronald Reagan’s historic 1987 speech in West Berlin, the General Services Administration should take page from Dutch and open up its e-Buy program to the public.

GSA hides task orders behind its version of a “pay wall” — vendors must spend upwards of $25,000 to get on a schedule contract and see what they are missing.

GSA took an initial step in June when it made older task orders available to federal agencies.

Tom Sharpe, Federal Acquisition Service commissioner, said in July GSA would open up e-Buy to the general public by the end of the year.

Well, here we are, almost to the end of the year and progress has slowed.

So Mr. Sharpe, it’s time to open e-Buy to the public once and for all.

It’s a transparency issue. It’s a fairness issue. It doesn’t make sense to keep these task orders private, especially when more and more agencies are driving procurements through these vehicles.

In 2015, agencies spent more money through GSA’s schedules and governmentwide acquisition contracts than then the previous year. Final 2015 spending numbers are not final yet, but GSA officials have said many times publicly they expect spending on schedules and GWACS in 2015 to increase significantly.

In 2014, agencies spent more than $32.8 billion on the schedules. GSA officials estimate the amount of revenue could increase to $35 billion last year. Additionally, agencies spent more than $5.5 billion on GWACs last year, up from about $5 billion in 2014.

Most experts expect agencies to continue to spend more money under schedules and GWACs this year.

Even Congress recognized the change in the way agencies buy products and services by giving the Government Accountability Office in 2008 the ability to hear bid protests of task orders worth more than $10 million.

And increased spending through multiple award contracts is the very reason why GSA should make e-Buy open to the public.

GSA says it continues to work on opening up e-Buy.

“FAS is committed to transparency and is working with customer agencies and colleagues across government to determine the best path forward to open e-Buy to the public,” said Kevin Youel Page, deputy commissioner of FAS in a statement to Federal News Radio. “Driven by the DATA Act, Integrated Award Environment improvements, the Acquisition Gateway, open data and other transparency and data initiatives, the federal government is maturing its governance of acquisition data. The material posted to e-Buy is subject to emerging federal data governance requirements, so we are in the process of obtaining additional input and feedback from the acquisition community before we take the final steps to open e-Buy information to the public.”

Sources say GSA got held up by the Chief Acquisition Officer’s Council, which is reviewing and discussing this issue.

But this is a similar excuse GSA used last year, but it was the lawyers who were standing in the way, worried about unknown issues.

It’s unclear why this is so hard. Agencies publicly release full-and-open solicitations through (which don’t get me started on that horrible website that hasn’t been updated in more than a decade and depends on 2000-era technology) all the time.

It’s not like task orders include any different information than what’s in a publicly released full-and open request for proposals.

Now I know some will tell me —  Guy Timberlake —  that part of the benefit of being in the game is being able to peek behind the wall and see these task orders. Some will say that vendors should know what’s going on if they are doing their homework so being able to see the potential opportunities is part of the differentiator.

While I understand that point, it pales in comparison to the benefits of opening up the tool to everyone.

GSA wants innovative companies to work for the government. GSA wants cutting edge, Silicon Valley to come to the Potomac, but why would a company spend money to get on a schedule when they have no insight into the history of potential opportunities.

Very few people buy a car without test driving it first. Very few people buy a house without walking through it at least once. But under the current e-Buy, industry can’t look at task orders until they have a schedule. And to get a schedule, according to one industry executive, could cost upwards of $25,000 plus the time and energy to get this through GSA’s maze.

The Obama administration says it’s the most transparent executive branch ever. We know there are a lot of reasons to dispute that claim, but GSA e-Buy shouldn’t be one of them.

Time has come to make e-Buy open to the public. So once again I ask Mr. Sharpe, Tear down that e-Buy Wall.

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