Lawmakers want assurances from GSA on AbilityOne compliance

The Obama administration’s strategic sourcing program has been beset by protests from unhappy vendors. But now the White House is hearing complaints from a larger, well connected constituency, the AbilityOne program.

More than 50 lawmakers wrote a letter to the General Services Administration Sept. 12 questioning its compliance with the Javits-Wagner-O’Day (JWOD) Act, which requires agencies to purchase specified products and services through the AbilityOne program. The AbilityOne program supports nearly 50,000 individuals who are blind or have other significant disabilities in manufacturing and services roles.

GSA, which is leading the acquisition part of the Federal Strategic Sourcing Initiative, has come under scrutiny for its Office Supplies 3 acquisition. The National Industries for the Blind protested OS3 twice over the inclusion of “brick-and-mortar” stores in a specific section of the contract. The Government Accountability Office denied NIB’s first protest and dismissed its second one.

But NIB’s protests of OS3 and other growing concerns about how GSA is ensuring compliance with AbilityOne prompted the lawmakers’ questions.

Lawmakers want to know:

  • What has been the performance of GSA commercial contractors with regard to maintaining the AbilityOne mandatory status? How has GSA managed non-compliant contractors?
  • What mark-up does GSA apply to AbilityOne products sold through GSA Global Supply?
  • What specific policies will GSA follow to ensure that commercial contractors comply with the mandatory requirements of the AbilityOne program?

“We ask GSA to work with us, the AbilityOne Commission, and National Industries for the Blind to guarantee compliance with the JWOD Act and further the goal of creating long-term, stable employment for Americans who are blind or who have other significant disabilities,” lawmakers wrote.

GSA, in part, responded to the concerns of lawmakers by posting a blog by Bill Sisk, deputy commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service.

Sisk wrote GSA has long supported the goals and people who are part of the AbilityOne program, and will continue to do so as the agency modernizes its schedule contracts

“The future of GSA’s Supply Transformation efforts shifts us to a model that will result in a more efficient supply chain, faster delivery times and better prices for our agency customers,” Sisk wrote. “This new approach will continue to strengthen our long-standing partnership with the AbilityOne program while at the same time using the capabilities of our vendors to directly support GSA’s customers, simplify federal acquisition, and over the next five years save taxpayers a half billion dollars.”

Sisk said GSA’s support of AbilityOne is strong today and will continue in the future. In fiscal 2013, GSA’s Global Supply sold more than $228 million worth of AbilityOne products, representing 22 percent of its business. So far in 2014 through August, GSA said AbilityOne received fewer total dollars, $191 million, but a larger percentage of their overall sales, 31 percent.

“Under Supply Transformation, GSA is closing its distribution centers in New Jersey and California, and transitioning to a model that streamlines distribution by having vendor partners directly store and ship our products,” Sisk wrote. “During the current transition, and after the complete implementation of the Federal Strategic Sourcing Initiative (FSSI), all vendors must be authorized AbilityOne distributors before they can be considered as vendor partners for GSA Global Supply.”

He added GSA will conduct “spot checks” for compliance with the AbilityOne rules to make sure vendors are not offering or shipping commercial items that are deemed equivalent to AbilityOne products.

“GSA works closely with AbilityOne to identify ‘Essentially the Same’ items, to communicate to vendors which product offerings are valid, and verifies compliance with random checks,” Sisk wrote.

Congressional interest in FSSI is expected to continue to rise over the next year as the House Small Business Committee is seriously concerned over the program’s impact on small businesses. And as the White House pushes GSA to put more products and services under FSSI, other constituencies likely will raise concerns to Congress. The big question is whether other committees, beside the small business ones, take notice over the changing nature of how the government buys products and services.

This post is part of Jason Miller’s Inside the Reporter’s Notebook feature. Read more from this edition of Jason’s Notebook.

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