Data driving GSA’s back office, customer facing contracting system upgrades

GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service is putting a larger focus on customer experience both on the front end systems and back end processes.

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Agencies and vendors using the contracts run by the General Services Administration should notice some improvements to their buying experience throughout fiscal 2022.

The Federal Acquisition Service is putting a larger focus on customer experience both on the front end systems and back end processes.

Crystal Philcox, the assistant commissioner of Enterprise Strategy Management in FAS, said the improvements coming are based on customer feedback.

Overall for both buyers and sellers, GSA wants to create more of a single entry point with single sign on both its customers to simplify their experiences.

Crystal Philcox is the assistant commissioner of Enterprise Strategy Management in GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service.

“What we’ve heard are things like our contracting officers are generally responsive, but may be a little bit inconsistent in the information they request. We have heard from them that they’d like to see more standardization in what’s accepted by contracting officers and what they’re asking for,” Philcox said at a recent panel sponsored by AFFIRM, an excerpt of which played on Ask the CIO. “We have heard that once you try to get on our contracts that submission process, the timeline and the status is a little bit unknown. So really understanding how long that process will take and what all the steps are people are a little bit in the dark there. So we are doing some things to work on fixing that.”

Another area of focus is providing examples of completed templates to help contractors fill out forms or provide GSA with information.

“We’ve got a website here that you have to go to do that and a website here to go to do that, so having some sort of game plan or checklist around what the next steps are and having that all together in one place would be really helpful,” she said.

For buyers, Philcox said the goal is to improve the data around products and services.

“When there’s no pictures, there’s no descriptions, buyers frequently say that they have issues with some of the data and information that’s in the product catalog that they’re looking at. They say the search isn’t good, the inventory status or fulfillment information is not great, and they don’t like spending a lot of time putting orders together and then finding out later that it wasn’t in stock,” she said. “There’s a number of projects that are going on to address that. We’ve gotten a contract acquisition lifecycle management system that we’re working on right now. That is really going to fix that interaction with the suppliers, including things like being like help getting us the data and allowing us to share back, including where your solicitation is in progress.”

Philcox said many of these new tools will roll out over the next six months or so.

For example, GSA in January launched a new service under the GSA Advantage! portal that provides any details of stock disruptions from manufacturers and wholesalers reporting issues in the Verified Products Portal (VPP).

Services marketplace goals

On the back end systems, Philcox said her office is improving how data is organized and presented through a series of dashboards, which then can be shared with the broader acquisition community.

“The other thing that that data really allows us to do is to really think about our collaborative policymaking and our collaborative purchasing power to really work on some top level priorities right now, that includes strengthening cyber and its supply chain risk management. It includes promoting climate friendly purchasing. It includes promoting compliance with Made in America policies, and focusing on creating that diverse resilient supply chain,” she said. “We know that our supply chain has been shrinking over the last several years so we’d like to try to reverse that trend. We’d like more suppliers to be able to get into the marketplace and have that supply chain really strong.”

Improving the services marketplace is another priority with short and long term goals.

Tiffany Hixson, the assistant commissioner of the Office of Professional Services and Human Capital Categories, said her focus around service contracts is similar to what Philcox mentioned around improving back office systems and supporting industry.

Tiffany Hixson is the assistant commissioner for GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service’s Office of Professional Services and Human Capital Categories.

“We’re working through having one training session so we can issue those delegations of procurement authority in a way that it’s a one time and you’re a trained acquisition professional. It’s really us telling you how to use these contract vehicles, how can we do that together,” she said. “We’re coming together to think through how to have one place that you can come in, ask those questions and get really feedback from experts on our staff in terms of how to use those contracts.”

In fact, Laura Stanton, the assistant commissioner of the Office of the IT Category, wrote in a blog post on Feb. 17 that GSA started standardizing the scope review process and created a digital tool/portal so customers can submit their scope review requests.

“This will allow for better tracking, management, and coordination across portfolios, as well as create a single customer experience. PSHC has already created a pilot single intake form and we are working to integrate that across other portfolios,” she wrote. “In the coming months, we’ll launch a single delegation of procurement authority training for OASIS and Human Capital and Training Solutions and a single on-demand ITC DPA, which combines 8(a) STARS III, VETS 2, and Alliant 2 to simplify the customer experience. We’ve also started the discovery phase for an order management tool for all services task orders. This will allow for better solicitation development, tracking, and task order management on GSA contracts.”

Stanton said these initiatives are examples of how ITC and PSHC are collaborating to improve buyer and seller experiences.

Updating the Calc tool

Another change coming that is focused on the agency buyer is around pricing.

Hixson said at the panel that her office is updating the Calc tool, which provides pricing intelligence.

“When that came out five years ago or so, it was really transformational in terms of providing that intelligence in a way that was searchable. Well, it’s time to refresh that work. We are working closely with Crystal’s team in thinking through how to refresh that particular dataset, how to bring in other pricing intelligence related services, that is searchable, and can help federal buyers as well as industry, benchmark their pricing in the services space,” she said.

Hixson said FAS currently has two different tools. One provides labor rates for a particular service, and the other is a price estimating tool that FAS has been testing out with the OASIS multiple award contract program.

“We’re really looking at how to align those. We will continue to start with improving labor pricing and pricing intelligence in that space. We’ve been using pricing intelligence that’s coming out of the multiple award schedule, ceiling rates that are awarded. But we’ve been collecting prices paid information on our governmentwide acquisition contracts and multiple award contracts for a number of years,” she said. “Also, the Bureau of Labor Statistics provides a whole bunch of data related to labor pricing that’s coming out of the commercial sector. So we’re looking at how do we really leverage all of those datasets to provide more pricing intelligence just in terms of labor costs that would then go into really this price estimating tool.”

Taking advantage of RPA

Philcox said part of improving the customer experience is reducing procurement lead time.

To do that, FAS is turning to robotics process automation (RPA) tools to accelerate some of the more mundane contracting paperwork.

Philcox said FAS is applying RPA to automatically fill out pre-negotiation letters for new contractors.

“We would send out a letter and our staff would normally have to dig into 6-7-8 different systems in order to look up information and pull all that into the letter. This RPA scans all of that, pulls all that information together for you so that you can very easily put together that renegotiation letter. It has saved us more than a couple of FTEs so far and we’ve just launched it,” she said. “We are continually looking for new areas to employ it. We are starting to look at machine learning too. We’re definitely using some natural language processing right now to dig out product information out of some of the data that we have. We are getting a lot more a lot smarter in how we think about data and about how to use it. We are investing in that area.”

Stanton added at the panel that every one of these efforts is about improving the process for GSA’s customers.

She said they are doing that by seeking to streamline how buyers and sellers interact with FAS across the board.

“One of the great examples that we did was commercial supplier agreements, which were taking just a significant amount of time on the terms of our staff, and we really applied a process improvement effort to be able to reduce the cycle time of those by 97%,” she said. “When we think about customer experience, we’re thinking not just about the direct contact with the customer, but we’re thinking of all of those back office processes that we’re talking about. We have an effort underway with our 2GIT to really look at how do we improve the speed of the modification process. That has tangible benefits to the customers if we’re able to do that because they’re able to access a larger product catalog that makes it easier for them to get their RFQs bids on. That’s something when we think about customer experience, I think often it haves that direct face-to-face contact, and we’re thinking about it in a much more expansive manner. We are really thinking about the life cycle of the holistic customer engagement and how they get what they need.”

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