Sen. McCaskill threatens to hold up nomination of new GSA administrator

The Missouri Democrat is frustrated over the lack of answers from GSA about the program to consolidate eight disparate databases holding vendor information. McC...

The General Services Administration’s initiative to combine eight different contractor databases will take at least another two years to complete.

GSA already has been working on the System for Award Management since 2010.

And waiting until 2018 for SAM to be fully operational is leaving some on Capitol Hill frustrated.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is demanding answers about the SAM program, including the final completion date and updated estimated life cycle costs.

Until she gets those answers, Denise Turner Roth’s nomination to be the new GSA administrator may be in jeopardy. President Barack Obama chose Turner Roth to be the next GSA administrator in May after spending the last year as the agency’s deputy administrator.

“We will continue our oversight and close monitoring of this project in other ways,” said a McCaskill spokeswoman in an email to Federal News Radio. “For example, Sen. McCaskill plans to place a hold on the nomination until we get a hard date for completion and updated life cycle cost estimate.”

McCaskill said Thursday at Turner Roth’s nomination hearing before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that she will reserve judgment about whether to vote for Turner Turner Roth until she gets answers about SAM.

“Now that date may not end up being the date, but I just have this sense, this is 2018 and we’ve been at this for six years and you are telling me it’s going to be another 2 1/2 years, eight years to integrate databases?” McCaskill said during the hearing. “And by the way, so everybody understands, the cost has gone from $96 million to $181 million that we know of right now. Is it more than $181 million in the long run if we are going to 2018?”

Turner Roth said completing the database consolidation effort is a top priority for GSA.

“Obviously it’s been very inefficient and it has not hit the success that we needed to hit,” she said.

McCaskill interrupted, “Contractors are making a lot of money off this deal. I just don’t sense there is urgency.”

GSA hired its second contractor in December to complete the database consolidation under the System for Award Management. The program is bringing together eight disparate databases, including the Central Contractor Registration and the Past Performance Information Retrieval System.

In November, GSA changed contractors and brought in Booz Allen Hamilton under a $64 million deal.

Booz Allen replaced IBM, which GSA hired in 2010 under a $74 million contract.

The program limped forward over the next two years. In 2012, GSA moved the program out of the Office of Governmentwide Policy and into the CIO’s Office with assistance from the Federal Acquisition Service.

SAM has since rebounded from its rocky start.

Turner Roth wrote to the committee in her Questions for the Record that more than 500,000 vendors have active registrations on the site, and it now takes vendors and the government less than three days to register.

She said help desk calls are down and GSA is benchmarking response times to questions to ensure they are answered timely and customers are engaged by software developers through a user-centric agile process.

In fact, industry also isn’t paying too much attention to GSA’s progress with SAM.

The Professional Services Council senior vice president Alan Chvotkin said, “PSC is long since past having any concern about the slow pace of integration of the components of the ‘Integrated Acquisition Environment’ into a single SAM database. While the ‘vision’ of a single SAM system continues to have promise, the current system configuration works well for the companies and it does not appear to have any significant issues for the agencies.”

But McCaskill remains frustrated, in part because she said she asked similar questions about the status of SAM at former GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini’s nomination hearing in 2012 and received a non-committal response.

“Are there still legacy systems operated by GSA?” McCaskill asked.

Turner Roth said yes there are.

“Do you have any sort of timeline for the retirement of legacy systems and the full GSA oversight of contractor information databases?” McCaskill asked.

Turner Roth said GSA is using an iterative approach to the system to ensure what they are building meets user needs and is successful.

She said the 2018 completion date is dependent on how successful each development cycle is for SAM.

“There was likely a lot of time lost on the front end putting all of those efforts together, turning on the switch just to find out it wasn’t going to work well,” Turner Roth said. “Some of the efforts that have been put in place at the agency both in terms of the changing of the management structure as well as taking a different development approach I think are important parts of it being successful as we make those transitions.”

An email response from GSA to a request for further comment on SAM offered few new details.

A spokeswoman said, “GSA appreciates the comments and will be working with committee to address the concerns immediately.”

Beyond SAM, members wanted to learn more about Turner Roth’s priorities.

Turner Roth said her top three were:

  • To achieve operational excellence;
  • To be an economic catalyst for local communities;
  • To create proactive partnerships with customer agencies.

“I think these themes build on the strengths of GSA in our current mission,” she said. “In terms of operational excellence, there have been quite a bit of reforms that have been put in place in relation to the agency, especially around consolidation around some of our operational activity. For us to continue to see that through and ensure that effort is successful as well as right size for the operations of the organization is important. The previous administrator, Administrator Tangherlini, set us up on a path in 2012 and I think it’s the right direction. So really trying to ensure the nuts and bolts of that activity is followed through is a key priority for me.”

The economic catalyst priority focuses on real property and real estate. Turner Roth said she is committed to working with local governments to ensure the buildings and leases serve the government and the community equally well.

The third priority is focused on agency partnerships, and really in the acquisition community. She said GSA needs to do more to help agencies deal with flat or shrinking budgets.

“To the extent that we can look ahead, utilizing the data that we have about these agencies and help them be more strategic in how they approach their current management, I think would help make them more successful,” Turner Roth said. “So if that’s from property, acquisition, technology, back office management, we frequently are engaging with all the agencies around the federal government. We have a good insight in terms of what they manage, how much they are managing, who they are managing for and, I think, we can use that data to proactively go to them with potential solutions.”

Some lawmakers asked about initiatives such as strategic sourcing or category management, but Turner Roth offered no new insight into those efforts.

There are a couple of other interesting insights that came from her questions for the record, including whether GSA was reviewing the fees it charges under the schedules program.

Turner Roth said GSA reduced fees for the fleet program, and actually gave agencies a refund of $12 million in 2014. It also recently gave customers a mid-year rebate of more than $128 million in 2015 because of lower gas prices.

She added the general supplies and services schedule changed business models to reduce rates.

A third area of interest from Turner-Roth’s Questions for the Record was around the SmartPay credit card program.
Senate committee members are concerned about waste, fraud and abuse by federal employees.

Turner-Roth wrote that GSA developed a governmentwide benchmarking effort for purchase card metrics. She said these include the use of a data mining tool, information to show which vendors agencies are buying the most from, the number of transactions that are disputed and the number of confirmed violations by the agency’s inspector general.

Turner Roth said these metrics should give GSA insight into which agencies are struggling with purchase card management efforts and where there are opportunities for improvements across the government.

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