GSA pitches acquisition reforms to Obama

The White House is interested government procurement. No, not the Office of Management and Budget, which includes the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, but the actual West Wing.

Tom Sharpe, the commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service in the General Services Administration, said his team recently briefed the folks in the mansion with no front door not once but twice in the last few weeks.

Laura [Stanton] and Kevin [Youel-Page] were in to see the President about category management and the Common Acquisition Platform. That was kind of exciting,” Sharpe said during a briefing Friday hosted by the Professional Services Council in Arlington, Virginia. “Monday night, he had us back in to talk about what FAS could do to help the federal agencies, and for that matter state and local, to save money.”

It’s interesting that President Barack Obama is finally focusing on government management with but two years left in his administration.

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There are several reasons for that. First off, the Republican-controlled Congress will limit the White House’s agenda. But more importantly, OMB finally has strong leadership in Beth Cobert, the deputy director for management, who not only gets performance and results, but actually cares about it. It was very difficult to say that about her predecessor.

Multiple sources in and out of government have spoken highly of Cobert, and the staff she’s putting together within the “M” side of OMB.

One long-time government executive and a former government official said they were pleased to see a lot of the management-focused initiatives in the fiscal 2016 budget request, but wished OMB would have pushed it out in 2010. The reason it took so long may be the constant rotation of OMB executives to other agencies, leaving the “M” side to be almost constantly in an “acting” mode.

Category management is at the center of OFPP’s Administrator Anne Rung’s agenda over the next two years.

Sharpe said she recently issued new guidance to the agency chief acquisition officers to focus on a new concept called “spend under management” (SUM).

Sharpe said the guidance is asking agencies to baseline how and where they spend their procurement dollars, and then improve upon that spending by getting better prices or value.

Rung issued initial guidance in December outlining her vision for three priorities, including category management.

She said in December the SUM included “collecting prices paid and other key performance information that allow easy comparisons” to help agencies ensure they “get the same competitive price and quality of performance when they are buying similar commodities under similar circumstances.”

Sharpe said FAS’ role under SUM and category management will continue to be big.

He said his organization is taking several steps to provide data to the governmentwide category management effort and to use this approach to improve how FAS serves its agency and vendor customers.

FAS opened up six hallways under its category management initiative across the schedules and governmentwide acquisition service, including professional services, IT hardware and IT software. Sharpe said by June there should be 17 hallways in place.

Currently, the hallways are open only to federal acquisition officials, but FAS offered a tour at the PSC event on Friday.

The hallways goal is to represent the government acquisition landscape, not just what GSA runs or produces, in a particular category.

Stanton said each category includes all the contracts available for that product or service, which agency runs it, which agencies can use it, what the fees are for using that contract, what can agencies buy from that contract, the terms and conditions and how you can buy from it.

She said it’s not transactional as of yet, but includes links and points of contact, expiration dates and other research needs for contracting officers and program managers.

Stanton said the hallways also include expert advice for those who don’t buy that specific type of category often.

“We are asking the experts to put information up there to help walk them through it,” she said. “We have things like how to access the Interact community for professional services. We also have visualization tools, which gets into all of the data pulled from the Federal Procurement Data System.”

FAS also developed a statement of work library, which includes examples that experts have considered successful ones from which others can borrow.

Sharpe said FAS also is modernizing the schedules through a combination of listening to customer via a recent survey, and developing new tools for contracting officers, such as the prices paid portal.

He said of all the eligible procurement dollars that could come through FAS, only about 15 percent is spent with GSA. Agencies spent about $38 billion under the schedules program in 2014.

Sharpe said he’s goal is to increase that percentage to 33 over the next three years.

“We are focused on customers and earning that business,” he said. “We did a customer loyalty survey recently and asked some key questions to try to understand the real value of the schedules to our customers. They came back to tell us it’s fast. I can prove it’s fast, up to 50 percent faster than open market buying behavior. And something didn’t expect to hear, it helps with compliance with the Federal Acquisition Regulations.. That represents public policy and proper business controls. We found there is work to be done at the price. Buyers across the civilian agencies — and we got separate feedback from the Defense Department agencies — they are not achieving the discounts they should, given the size and demographics of their orders. I realized we should have a program around some sort of supplier report card. We are off on an effort to meet that need particularly around the price of the schedules.”

Sharpe was clear about the big changes coming to how the government buys, and if the fact that the White House is asking for briefings is any indication of how serious the administration is taking this category management approach, agencies and vendors alike need to keep a close eye on what’s happening.

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