Federal procurement laws exist for a reason. Whether it’s protecting national interests or helping American businesses succeed, the lawmakers and public servants who crafted these statutes had the greater public good in mind.
The same holds true for the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Act (JWOD or commonly known today as the AbilityOne Program), signed into law 80 years ago. The program provides the federal government with products and services it needs, while giving people who are blind or have significant disabilities the opportunity to become taxpaying citizens and reduce their reliance on government assistance.
The JWOD Act is just one of the procurement laws and regulations federal buyers must consider before stocking their storerooms. Buyers want to do the right thing, but the burden of compliance seems heavy.
Enter the goal of the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) Section 846 e-commerce portal initiative being led by the General Services Administration (GSA) in coordination with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB): Make purchasing more convenient and compliance easier.
But is it possible to have a convenient buying experience while also complying with procurement laws and regulations?
Sure it is. The government doesn’t have to sacrifice one for the other.
E-commerce technology being used in the commercial retail sector can be leveraged to make government buying as easy as the ordering we do at home, from our couches, on our smartphones. E-commerce sites selling in the federal market ought to be aiming for the gold standard already set by commercial retailers.
A best-in-class user experience should include built-in compliance. Otherwise, government buyers would need to manually validate that the products on their shopping list comply with applicable procurement laws. Making compliance seamless speeds up the buying process.
Companies already use software to steer the user experience. Cookies and tracking pixels guide what ads appear on websites we visit. Parental controls restrict what television or web content is accessible to certain users. Similar technology can be used to ensure that products selected by federal users of commercial e-commerce portals comply with procurement laws and regulations.
Online providers are already making it easier for federal buyers to follow the law. E-commerce sites like GSA Advantage, AbilityOne.com and many others seamlessly ensure the items that wind up in a federal buyer’s virtual shopping cart are compliant. GSA’s 4P tool, flagging tool and remediation tool all make compliance easier for vendors and federal customers while reducing administrative costs.
Commercial vendors that do not have a federal-only portal in their e-commerce platform can still provide federal buyers compliant purchasing through block-and-substitution technology. This technology blocks the sale of non-compliant commercial products from federal customers and substitutes it with the required equivalents. Similar software is used to prevent the sale of non-compliant Trade Agreements Act (TAA) items within the federal marketplace.
Bottom line: software is already helping buyers get their pens and reams of paper with the confidence of knowing they’re doing the right thing — which sustains employment. With the right technology, training, and processes, federal buyers can have it both ways. Convenience and compliance don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
When it comes to training, the government and private industry have demonstrated their willingness to learn about the AbilityOne Program and make it part of their processes and systems. National Industries for the Blind (NIB) hosts popular “industry days” to educate vendors, provides targeted training for purchase card holders, and also works with federal contracting officers to ensure the AbilityOne requirement is included in solicitations.
Consider the consequences of not protecting statutory requirements in commercial e-commerce portals. In the case of the AbilityOne requirement, we know that the program sustains employment for more than 46,000 Americans who are blind or have significant disabilities, including thousands of our nation’s veterans. The program gives them the confidence and independence that come from gainful employment.
There are more than 1,000 items produced by people who are blind or have significant disabilities that would likely be sold through the commercial e-commerce portals. If compliance with the AbilityOne Program is neglected, thousands of hardworking Americans would risk losing their jobs. Worse yet, their chances of finding another job are questionable: While corporate America has made strides in hiring people with disabilities, nearly 70 percent of working-age Americans who are blind are not employed. This alarming statistic pales in comparison to the national unemployment rate. Until private-sector employers overcome misconceptions about what people who are blind can do, the AbilityOne Program will continue to harness the power of this untapped workforce.
Keith Tyson is one such American whose job would be put in jeopardy if AbilityOne Program compliance isn’t addressed in the commercial e-commerce platform initiative. Keith, who is completely blind, works at the AbilityOne Base Supply Center at Joint Base Andrews — a stone’s throw away from thousands of purchase card holders who, perhaps unknowingly, play a significant role in his life.
Keith earns a competitive wage and good benefits. His job helped him buy a home in the Maryland suburbs, where he lives with his wife and 13-year-old son. Keith pays his taxes, volunteers in his community, and provides for his family. He’s living the American Dream.
The federal government is embarking on a laudable journey to streamline procurement while creating economic growth for private industry. Convenience and compliance can both be achieved, and the government and its industry partners could make this initiative a win-win-win by preserving laws that support hardworking Americans like Keith Tyson.
Kevin Lynch is president and CEO of National Industries for the Blind, the nation’s largest employment resource for people who are blind and designated central nonprofit agency of the AbilityOne Program.