The General Services Administration’s new vision for the Federal Acquisition Service is all about illuminating the art of the possible.
GSA will launch the first set of initiatives under its new category management approach, called hallways, in the next six weeks as a way to light the path for contracting officers toward an acquisition process that is cheaper, better and faster.
“We will bring three live by Sept. 30. The three are going to be office supplies, IT hardware and IT software, and hot on the heels of that in the first quarter [of fiscal 2015] professional services, and by mid next year the full complement of the 17,” said Tom Sharpe, the FAS commissioner, Thursday at a panel discussion sponsored by AFFIRM in Washington. “Don’t be surprised if the number changes. For example, DoD puts them in different groupings. We will get to a common grouping. But underneath, it’s product service codes. You can bundle them up, bundle them down and put them in as many buckets as you like.”
In all, GSA will develop hallways around 17 categories as part of its broader effort to move federal acquisition from a mostly siloed-by-agency approach to one that takes advantage of a wide range of data and shared services.
GSA first introduced many of these changes in April, and added more details Thursday to what it plans to do over the next three years.
Through category management and several other initiatives, Sharpe said he wants GSA to become the one-stop shop for every agency’s procurement needs. He said FAS’ efforts are part of the way he wants to increase its market share, but, more importantly, help the government reduce duplication among contracting actions and improve governmentwide outcomes.
Sharpe said agencies continue to struggle to hire acquisition workers, and as budgets shrink, GSA is expanding to meet customer agency contracting needs.
Sharpe said GSA has three goals:
Offer unbiased advice;
Help write better contracts;
Offer a full spectrum of services to meet every level of need across the government.
Along with the category management, FAS is developing a common acquisition platform and plans to modernize its business model and expand its services.
As part of the business modernization effort, Sharpe said he would work on a major change to the types of contracts that can be used on the multiple award schedules (MAS)— something vendors have been calling for since 2004.
“We are introducing additional flexibilities. In the interest of transparency, I want to acknowledge I know there are issues surrounding MAS for many years that I think we should address once and for all, namely the issue of Other Direct Costs and cost reimbursable contracting,” he said. “We realize both of these flexibilities are in high demand by industry partners and our customers, and sometimes it results in having to turn to other solutions. We are addressing this by seeking Federal Acquisition Regulations and GSA acquisition regulation rules to enable ODCs to be included in MAS contracts. We will see what happens in the rulemaking.”
Other Direct Costs are a way for firms to charge the government for unforeseen costs. The Services Acquisition Reform Panel suggested ODCs be added to schedules in 2004. Efforts and conversations have happened, but GSA wasn’t sure how best to change the schedules.
Under the expanded services initiatives, GSA is expanding its assisted acquisition service. Sharpe said FAS will offer agency customers as much or as little help as they want, including taking over all acquisition services.
In fact, Sharpe said FAS already is in a pilot with an agency. He wouldn’t name the agency, but FAS started working with it on a small scale to see if outsourcing would work.
“It’s a pilot of five or six contracts to test that. So far, so good,” he said. “We are interested in helping customers whether they want us to help them do something, give them advice on how to do something or actually do something for them. It can be as broad as outsourcing their procurement shop if they elect that. I’m open to do that.”
Sharpe said when FAS is successful, he’d like to expand the initiative with the current customer and add new ones.
Over the past 18 months since Sharpe took over as FAS commissioner, he has been focused on improving how his organization services its customers. Coming from Treasury, Sharpe knows the shortcomings and missed opportunities GSA has faced over the years.
He said this attempt to create a one-stop acquisition shop is buoyed by two major reasons.
The first is budget reductions, because whether sequestration comes back in 2016 and beyond or not, agencies will have less money to spend. Sharpe said if they can save money by outsourcing some or all of their acquisition work to GSA, agency customers can save money and put it toward their mission areas.
The second reason is the tremendous amount of untapped data that now is available to help agencies make better decisions and add value to GSA’s services.
Taking advantage of the treasure trove of information
Kevin Youel-Page, GSA’s assistant commissioner for the Common Acquisition Platform, said several data analytics tools are coming, including one modeled after a popular tax preparation software.
“We are calling it the ‘turbo FAR.’ The idea, like TurboTax, takes a very complicated tax code and makes it simple by asking you, ‘Did you buy a house? Did you get married? Did you have children?’ Those are tax triggering events. Similarly, we have triggering events in the FAR. How big is the procurement? What kind of procurement is it — services or products?” he said. “We believe over time we plan to evolve the capability to help our acquisition staff through some of the expert decision support fed by experts in policy shops, differentiating based on local policy. But in the end, pointing people toward the shared services that already exist, pointing people toward the acquisition vehicles that already are awarded to support the kind of requirements that someone coming brand new to the space may not be aware of, and giving them help that they may not get without years of training. We are hoping to build that into the way they experience the process going forward.”
Sharpe added other tools may include something akin to Yelp for contracting officers where they can rate, rank or comment on vendors, tools or services, and others can use that information to make better decisions.
Youel-Page said IAE also is looking at developing other contract support services, including a contracting writing system support, because that feeds all of the databases.
Sharpe didn’t mention the concerns around GSA’s fee structure for using the schedules, governmentwide acquisition contracts or blanket purchase agreements.
Over the years, agencies haven’t been able to see the potential cost savings in using GSA instead of developing and running their own contracts. GSA’s fee structure ranges from 0.75 percent to use the schedules or 2 percent to use some of the blanket purchase agreements. Agencies see that fee as money going out of their pockets, but they don’t recognize that creating and running their own contracts is just as costly, if not more.
“We have made the case and can prove the case that doing work under the multiple award schedule can be up to 50 percent faster to raise an order than doing an open market,” Sharpe said. “As agencies think about taking some costs out, they pay their contracting staff. We pay our contracting staff. We are required by statute to recover [our costs], and we are morally obliged to be efficient. And what we will do with the available enterprise contracts is put them in the hallway so they are not in the dark and agencies can see the prices, the terms, the other best practices and all the available contracts in the light of the hallway.”
GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini told Senate lawmakers in 2012 during his confirmation hearing that he would look at the fee structure.
Sharpe said the focus so far has been on gaining efficiencies across the agency, which would then open the door to a discussion about whether the fees need to be lowered.
Sharpe said he wants feedback from industry and government to ensure GSA is doing the right things to ensure the agency is the preferred place to do business.