FSS chief retires as Congress, industry question reorganization plan

A senior General Services Administration official announced her retirement Friday, a day after the agency announced a plan that would eliminate her position.

In a memorandum to GSA employees, Donna Bennett, the commissioner of the Federal Supply Service, said she would leave the agency on July 3 after a 35-year career in the government. "This will be a bittersweet moment for me," Bennett wrote, "especially as I acknowledge I will be the last FSS commissioner."

Bennett was one of the chief architects of a draft plan, released Thursday, to merge FSS with the Federal Technology Service, creating a new organization called the Federal Acquisition Service. The service will be led by a single commissioner, who will oversee a number of business units, an acquisition management organization and customer service unit, all of which will act as the government's primary buyer of goods and services, including information technology, office supplies, motor vehicle maintenance and travel services, to name only a few.

Under Bennett's tenure, FSS has grown into a massive contracting organization that processes more than $40 billion in sales annually through its popular schedules program. Under the terms of the draft reorganization, the schedules will be divided among the new business units, which will be responsible for managing them. A separate organization will establish procurement policy, which presumably will include to how the schedules can be used and modified.

Bennett noted in her retirement announcement that "many of the key details [of the draft plan] remain to be worked out." GSA plans to hear comments from industry later this month, but the agency will also receive input from the author of the legislation that allowed FTS and FSS to merge.

After the draft reorganization plan was released Thursday, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, questioned whether the plan "meets the spirit" of the law he authored.

"GSA's plan does not seem to foster the tighter management control envisioned by the committee to improve acquisition effectiveness and prevent the high profiled abuses and acquisition mismanagement demonstrated by the recent inspector general reports," Davis said, referring to GSA audits that revealed abuse of procurement regulations by FTS regional offices across the country.

Davis has been particularly concerned about modifying GSA's current structure, in which regional administrators exert significant autonomy from headquarters, and he indicated that GSA's plan doesn't go far enough in that regard. His legislation authorized the GSA administrator to appoint up to five "regional executives" for the new acquisition service, "to facilitate close oversight and more management control over acquisition-related activities," Davis said.

"[W]e hoped GSA would have been more supportive of that goal," Davis continued. "It is unclear how the regional executives [under the draft plan] are to fit into this organization as they are currently at the bottom of the structural chart."

Davis said the committee, which oversees GSA, will have comments as the draft plan is finalized. "Rest assured that under the current proposal, this will be a matter of further discussion between the committee and GSA," he said.

An industry group also is questioning the regional reporting structure. "The plan does nothing to change reporting or structure issues that have led to multiple policy and operational approaches," said Larry Allen, the executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, an association that represents contractors. "As such, it is likely that the different policy interpretations and practices that are now a concern will remain," Allen said, adding, "I would have thought that the plan would have hewn a little more closely to GSA's congressional oversight chair's preference."

Allen also said that structuring the new organization as a set of business units was based on the model used for FTS. "Historically, this model resulted in a climate that promoted sales over contract management. This led to inevitable conflict," he said. "[D]ifferent organizations competed against each other for business. By taking this concept onto a wider playing field, the potential for similar trouble remains and actually expands." He also questioned the wisdom of splitting up the schedules program, arguing that doing so "makes it virtually impossible to buy products and services together if they cross business lines."

FSS' Bennett said she had no immediate plans following her retirement. "It is time to play, at least for the summer, and then perhaps to explore new ways to learn and grow," she said.

Bennett joined GSA 21 years ago as the director of governmentwide travel and transportation policy. In addition to Bennett, the FSS deputy commissioner, Lester Gray, is retiring. Amanda Fredriksen, Bennett's chief of staff, and Sharon Fowler, Bennett's assistant, have not announced plans to leave.

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