Turmoil at the Top

GSA faces greater scrutiny with emphasis on transparency in IT acquisitions.

GSA faces greater scrutiny with emphasis on transparency in IT acquisitions.

As President Obama's choice to lead the General Services Administration, Martha Johnson finds herself in the middle of some of the administration's most ambitious plans. GSA is playing a key role in disbursing Recovery Act dollars and has taken the lead on the White House's efforts to expand government's use of social media tools. But Johnson's main challenge will be to bring stability and transparency to the government's central procurement shop, which has had five acting administrators since April 2008.

Johnson is no stranger to GSA; she served as its chief of staff from 1996 to 2001 and was co-chairwoman of the Obama transition team that evaluated the agency. Her initial months will be spent overseeing the more than $5 billion in stimulus funds allocated to GSA's Public Buildings Service to renovate federal facilities.

But spending stimulus funds is only one of the challenges awaiting Johnson. If Obama and federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra fulfill their promise to bring transparency to government information technology procurements, then GSA officials will face greater scrutiny over how they conduct their competitions.

At the same time, a blue-ribbon advisory panel set up to examine the Federal Supply Schedule program recently recommended that GSA eliminate the price reduction clause, which requires vendors to offer the government the same price as their top commercial customers. The clause has caused some vendors to drop out of the program, which is the primary procurement vehicle for commercial products and services. Instead, the panel recommended that GSA require contracting officers to obtain multiple bids at the task order level to guarantee competition and best value for the government.

Another issue GSA faces is the ongoing transition to the Alliant and Networx contracts for IT and telecommunications services, respectively. Both contracts have been slow to attract agency interest. At her confirmation hearing Johnson said the transition to Networx is taking too long and at the current rate, most agencies will not have made the transition from FTS 2001 services before that contract expires.

GSA finally awarded the $50 billion Alliant contract for IT goods and services in March, one year after a protest derailed the original award. The number of awardees doubled to 59 after the agency allowed vendors to update their bids before the final decision. Alliant appears to be GSA's main weapon in the competition for agencies' IT procurement dollars; only vendors on the contract were eligible to bid on the redesign of Recovery.gov, the federal Web site GSA is building to allow users to track economic stimulus spending. Alliant is likely to see its importance rise as agencies rush to spend Recovery Act dollars.

The true measure of Johnson's success will be whether GSA can reverse its declining market share in federal contracts.

Industry watchers say the recent proliferation of government contracting vehicles outside GSA could be seen as a lack of confidence in the agency. If one year from now Johnson has succeeded in convincing more agencies to use GSA's contracts instead of creating their own, then chances are she's doing pretty well.

Click here for the top 25 GSA contractors.