It takes a $500,000 payroll for the government to buy a 10-cent pencil

You don’t hear much lately about the paperless office. Since the advent of office computers, paper consumption has gone up exponentially. Even today, many federal agencies archive their email not according to administration requirements under M-12-18 but instead by printing them out and storing the paper.

I googled images of Google’s offices. Sure enough, in the ultimate online information company, paper piles lie everywhere.

Think about pencils. Zillions of them are made every year throughout the world. Even though you rarely see someone actually using a yellow pencil (I use ’em), for about a dime apiece has anyone ever devised a more economical and effective integrated communications device?

No wonder the government spends more than $600 million a year on office supplies using General Services Administration contracts. That’s about 0.15 percent of total government contract spending. Big enough to make office supplies worthy of a “strategic sourcing” effort by the White House and GSA. Or is it? As Jason Miller reports, strategic sourcing for office supplies has worked out about as well as an unplugged electric pencil sharpener. Given the number of people devoted to the problem of strategically buying office supplies, I’m guessing it amounts to a half million dollars in payroll.

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Buying pencils and toner cartridges gets complicated as only federal acquisition can. Boiled down, presuming they vote with their dollars, agencies prefer GSA’s Schedule 75 for buying office supplies. GSA, under the strategic sourcing initiative, has a special contract called OS3, but it hasn’t proven particularly popular. While OS3 was tied up in protests, agencies devised their own blanket purchase agreements using Schedule 75. The schedule has everything from government High Grand Rapids style furniture to toilet seat covers.

My question is whether the effort on strategically buying pencils, soap and boring furniture really merits all the energy GSA and the White House are putting into it. This year, the government will spend $1.024 trillion on Medicare, Medicaid, health care subsidies and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. One percent savings there — let’s see, 1 percent times a trillion, take away two zeros, equals $10 billion — you could pay for office supplies at Schedule 75 prices for the next three presidential terms.

The great and often misunderstood Dale Carnegie wrote a gem of a book back in 1948,  How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. He used the metaphor “sawing the sawdust” to describe meaningless activities that detract from the important and cause anxious worry. This administration says it likes evidence. Strategic sourcing, from the evidence, looks like a case of sawing the sawdust.

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