GSA steps up cultivation of elusive agency ‘customers’

The current frugality push across government presents a special opportunity for one agency in particular. The General Services Administration, which outfits other federal agencies with everything from purchase cards to cloud computing know-how, sees today's belt-tightening as a new "sweet spot," in the words of Federal Acquisition Service Commissioner Steven Kempf.

Because all agencies work with GSA, it can effect changes governmentwide, an ability that "puts us in a unique position to assist others -- particularly in these times -- to get better prices and services, and to leverage the resources they do have," he said. "If the agencies ever needed a best friend, now is the time."

In an interview with Government Executive, Kempf spoke enthusiastically of President Obama's November 2011 executive order directing agencies to curb spending on travel, personal technology devices, printing and vehicle fleets.

"One of the big changes it means here at FAS is that customers and industry are seeing the kind of things we actually offer for agencies to help them save money and do their jobs better," he said. "We're moving into more of a consultant role in helping them meet their business goals and get more for the mission."

Nearly all agencies count on GSA for such basics as purchase cards and landlord services, and many rely on its schedules, or catalogs of some 11 million commercial products and services available from thousands of companies.

But not all are as quick to embrace, say, GSA's governmentwide acquisition contracts for IT services. While fully 90 federal entities use GSA's domestic shipping and delivery services and 60 use its office supplies plan, only 24 use its print management tool, 20 use its general wireless devices plan and six use its special Wireless Telecom Expense Management Services. (See GSA's previously unpublished list of individual participating agencies here.)

Why is there reluctance? "Over the last 10 years, agencies received more sources and had more in-house capability to do things, so they got used to it," said Kempf, a former contract attorney with a business background. He acknowledged that agency pride also may explain some hesitation to call in GSA.

An April 2010 Government Accountability Office report examined the military's reasons for not using governmentwide acquistion contracts from GSA. It conveyed the sense that GSA prices were too high, that outsiders could not ensure that products were in compliance with Defense Department standards, and that such cooperation created a dependence on external agencies.

More recently, a December GAO study confirmed much of GSA's own research showing that interagency purchasing of office supplies saves the government money, but the report expressed some reservations about the GSA study's methodology.

Hence, some salesmanship is required to remind agencies, for example, that GSA contracts, which are available to state and local as well as federal agencies, assure compliance with all government regulations, such as those affecting the environment and economic fairness.

One of the tools GSA is using to persuade more managers that its fees and prices are a good deal is the Federal Strategic Sourcing Initiative. Defined as "optimizing the government's supply base while reducing total cost of ownership and improving mission delivery," strategic sourcing was introduced in 2005 by the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy as a partnership between GSA and the Treasury Department.

"We went out and took a handful of commodities and put in place relatively large 'precompeted' contracts with great prices so the heavy work is done for them," Kempf said. "They don't have to spend a lot of resources to put it in place themselves," freeing up managers whose inboxes are always full to "focus on things more specific to their mission. We're seeing savings as much as 10 percent."

Strategic sourcing currently deals with supplies, wireless plans, printers and telecommuting, with two more functions set to roll out in the next two months. The most frequent users of the initiative are the Defense, Homeland Security, Treasury and Veterans Affairs departments, as well as GSA itself.

One of its notable success stories is the Commerce Department's use of what's known as the PrintWise campaign, Kempf said. "They worked with us early," when the department was spending $25 million annually on printing, generating 25 percent of its pages in color, 90 percent single-sided, and contracting with 350 or 400 vendors. GSA quickly helped Commerce shave off $3.5 million in costs through frugal paper purchasing, altering employee habits and abandoning desktop printers. The number of contractors, Kempf says, could be trimmed to two or three.

Dan Gordon, retiring this month as administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, told Government Executive that his office has "been pleased to see GSA focused on three key areas: listening to the user agencies to be sure that GSA is meeting their needs; negotiating good prices for the government; and increasing opportunities for small businesses. You see the results in the office supplies strategic sourcing effort: agencies looked at GSA's offerings, and concluded that GSA was offering what they needed at low prices. The result is that agencies are buying their office supplies through the GSA vehicles -- and more than 70 percent of the dollars are going to American small businesses."

GSA's reputation, Kempf said, "is on the rise and dynamic." The most recent customer loyalty survey, done by a private contractor, gave the agency an 8.5 of a possible 10. "But a better number is our sales," he said, "which rose from $54 billion to $55 billion in the past year. There's no better indicator of customer loyalty than spending more money on using us. And when we go out and talk to agencies, they're glad to see us."

Where the old GSA provided assistance or watched as agencies relied on their own resources, the new GSA is now helping with spending analysis and acquisition strategies, helping customers use the tools that "make them better users of GSA solutions," Kempf said.

True, some customers have said the agency needs to simplify and become easier to work with. So GSA employees now are commonly out in other agencies training contract officers in using GSA schedules, exploiting data and embracing such Digital Age tools as e-Buy, GSA Advantage, webinars and the site.

How does the economic downturn affect price negotiations with more eager private sector suppliers? "It puts us in an interesting place," Kempf said. "To some extent, more competition is good for the government because it can increase its effectiveness by leveraging procurement, by understanding more of what [it's] buying in order to maximize the volume discounts, the return on the procurement, and really use the effectiveness of good procurement to drive more value into each procurement and then deliver more for the mission and get more for every taxpayer dollar being spent."

Another big change at GSA acquisition, he said, is that the agency is less "coy" about getting its success stories out. "People talk about us as the best kept secret in government, and we want to erase that and get our story out. We want to share results of specific projects," Kempf said. "Then other agencies will see the opportunities and mimic them."

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