An acquisition system for a new generation

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Federal News Network’s series GSA @ 70: Mission Evolved has featured a series of interviews with General Services Administration executives, both appointed and career. We’ve been examining the history and future trends of the agency as it enters its eighth decade.

Alan Thomas, the commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service, spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin.


Below is an edited excerpt of an interview from Federal Drive host Tom Temin conducted with Alan Thomas, an appointee and commissioner of GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service. Thomas discusses several ongoing initiatives that will change GSA’s internal processes and the services it deploys to its federal customers.

FNN: What is your agenda for the time, as appointed Federal Acquisition Service commissioner, you’ll have.

Alan Thomas: We’re working on what we call the federal marketplace strategy. It’s a series of policy process and technology changes that we’re making, and they’re really focused on doing three things. One, making it easier for our customers to buy the solutions they need to meet their requirements. Two, making it a less burdensome and simpler for industry partners to provide those solutions. And three, putting the right tools and making the right process changes so our workforce can be that market maker, a matchmaker to help buyers find what they need.

FNN: And in some sense your direct customers are federal contracting officers and they tend to be slow about change or maybe a little conservative about changing with new rules even when there’s new legislation. How do you convince them that hey, this really can be simplified?

Thomas: So the federal contracting officer is a very valuable and to some extent, scarce resource, right? We have almost a thousand of them within the federal acquisition service at GSA. So we tend to think, we know how a federal contracting officer thinks. They’re busy. They’re in demand. So our goal is to put contract vehicles and tools – things like market research tools – in place to make their lives easier and allow them to serve their customers more effectively.

We [recently] held a customer panel where we listened to a few of our customers. We had an Air Force customer who uses OASIS quite a bit talk about it. They said, look, we couldn’t do what we do in terms of managing $9 billion a year in professional services spend without OASIS. We’d have to hire a bunch of extra people. I don’t even know if we could find those people to do it. And so GSA provides a really valuable service that makes our life as contracting professionals much easier.

Some of these automated and artificial intelligence tools coming in – can they somehow be built in and inculcated with the various regulations like the FAR to further automate what is now often a manual or a mental process? So that the discretion can be applied where it really needs to be discretion? I think so.

FNN: What can agencies expect to see, say in the next eight to 12 months?

Thomas: We held our leadership council, our Federal Acquisition Service Leadership Council, where all the [Senior Executive Service personnel] in the organization go off and we meet for a couple of days. Kinda talk strategy and what we’re doing long term. We’re trying to build something here that endures no matter who’s in my chair or who’s in the administrator’s chair. So within the federal marketplace strategy, there are four big initiatives that we have. A couple of them are internal, a couple of them are external.

FNN: Let’s start with the external.

Thomas: There’s the multiple awards schedule consolidation. You’re going to see everybody on a single solicitation come, October. Single solicitation will be done in October of this year. And then in [fiscal 2020], we’ll use that to convert everybody over onto a single schedule.

There’s also the commercial platform pilot. This is in response to the section 846 within the [2017] National Defense Authorization Act. You will see at the end of this calendar year, at the very beginning of next calendar year, we’re going to do a proof of concept. We’ll put an acquisition out and we’ll actually have some commercial e-marketplaces that’ll be available for federal customers to use.

It will be multiple marketplaces. We’re looking for marketplaces that can both bring third-party sellers in and also potentially provide some of their own goods within the marketplace.

GSA @ 70, multiple award schedules

FNN: And the internal changes?

Thomas: One is to put an enterprise contract management system in place. Right now within the Federal Acquisition Service, there are anywhere between 35 and 45 different task-based tools that our folks use every day to get their work done. So if you’re an average CO, you are logging into and using during any given week, somewhere around 14 or 15 different systems to get your job done.

We’re looking to put in place an enterprise contract management system. It’s a big data play there for us as well. Our data’s chopped up in all kinds of little different places now. So that’s pretty exciting. It’s a big change.

The other area that we’re focused on internally is around how we manage a catalog, what we call catalog data. This is the data that our industry partners provide us about their products and services. There’s a little bit of a painful process that some of our suppliers go through in order to put that data into what we maintain now as our catalog.

So we’re looking to modernize that. And then we’re really looking to get it into a single source. And that allows us to have much better control and visibility over it. That allows us to be very responsive to things like made in America and supply chain risks and those sorts of things which are, which are now a little bit more challenging.

FNN: What do you envision the buying process from their standpoint to look like in five years?

Thomas: I think the buying process will be more digital than it is today. We definitely want to make it more coherent and simpler. We’re looking at simplification, burden reduction, really just making it easier for customers to interact with us.

To find all stories in this series click here.

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