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GSA pushes for greater use of call center contract

FirstContact is designed to streamline the process of selecting a vendor to operate a citizen service center.

The General Services Administration is trying to drum up business for its new call center program, which helps agencies set up offices to field phone calls and e-mails from citizens.

Last July, GSA launched the program, called FirstContact, and selected five companies to compete for call center work across government: Aspen Systems, ICT Group Inc., Pearson Government Solutions, TeleTech Government Solutions, and Datatrac Information Services Inc.

Since then, GSA has issued two task orders, one worth about $30 million for the agency itself and another worth about $500,000 for a temporary Federal Emergency Management Agency center set up after the Florida hurricanes.

M.J. Pizzella, associate administrator of GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Communications, which runs FirstContact, said several other task orders are on the way, including one for a referral hot line related to human trafficking issues at the Health and Human Services Department's Administration for Children and Families.

Pizzella said the call center program was set up partly because making it easier for citizens to contact agencies is among the best practices the Office of Management and Budget is emphasizing across government.

She said that while GSA doesn't intend for all government call centers to be run through the FirstContact program, the agency and OMB are encouraging agencies to standardize turnaround times on responses and to make it easier for citizens to speak to a person rather than listen to a recording.

"Any time we can get that straightened out and organized for people on the other end of that line, that's an incredible service to citizens and takes the burden off the agency. The real focus is on better management," said Pizzella.

GSA estimates that FirstContact saves the typical agency $300,000 to $500,000 in contracting costs, by using the GSA's preselected list of contractors to avoid lengthy competitions.

"These five vendors are very competitive, so we feel the government is really getting a good price," said Teresa Nasif, director of the Federal Citizen Information Center in the Office of Citizen Services and Communications. Still, she acknowledged, "It's hard to know in the absence [of the program] what kind of deal we could negotiate."

A FEMA spokesman said that using FirstContact allowed the agency set up a contact center within 48 hours of submitting a request to GSA. FEMA needed to interview 30,000 hurricane victims within seven days after they applied for temporary housing. The call center was open for two months and served 400,000 people, according to GSA.

The second task order went to GSA's own National Contact Center, which answers general questions about the government. "Citizens call and ask the same questions over and over again," said Nasif. The call center is designed to save agencies time by lifting the burden of dealing with repetitive inquiries.The FirstContact contract lasts four and a half years.

GSA is working with OMB to develop governmentwide standards for responding to phone and e-mail inquiries and already has held one interagency meeting. Contact centers of all sizes should agree on certain levels of customer service, such as responding to e-mails within two business days, said Nasif. Currently, response times vary widely.

Next month, GSA is holding a workshop on FirstContact to explain how the program works and to address concerns that if calls are handled outside of agencies, callers won't be able to reach experts in various subjects.