GSA not interested in contracting 'monopoly,' official says

But head of Federal Acquisition Service says agency should be only provider of some services, such as telecommunications and credit cards.

WILLIAMSBURG, Va.-The General Services Administration does not wish to re-establish a monopoly over governmentwide procurement, a top acquisition official at the agency said Monday.

"We can't say 'Return to the days of old where GSA is a monopoly and you don't have a choice of going anywhere else,'" said Jim Williams, commissioner of GSA's Federal Acquisition Service. He spoke during the annual Executive Leadership Conference, hosted by the American Council for Technology and the Industry Advisory Council. Government Executive is a co-sponsor.

On the other hand, GSA should be the sole governmentwide supplier of some kinds of services, including telecommunications networks and credit card assistance, Williams said. The prospect that dissatisfied agencies would go out on their own would be enough in those cases to keep GSA responsive, he said: "Competition is not important -- it's the threat of competition."

GSA Administrator Lurita Doan has mounted a public campaign to take over some acquisition vehicles managed by other agencies, under the argument that they are an inefficient use of taxpayer dollars. The move has attracted criticism from some in the information technology community who recall the days when GSA procurement vehicles were the only option.

"Lurita is a bit of a lighting rod, but I support what [she] is doing," Williams told the audience.

Recent media reports that Doan wishes to take over the Homeland Security Department's Enterprise Acquisition Gateway for Leading Edge solution multiple-award contract for IT services may be exaggerated, Williams said. "Her answer was 'I haven't looked at EAGLE yet,' meaning 'I've been too busy doing other things,' and it got translated as "EAGLE is next in my sight,'" Williams said. "I don't think that's what Lurita said."

The notion that competition from other governmentwide procurement vehicles is inherently wasteful is false, said conference attendee Steven Kelman, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and former head of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

"That's what the Russians used to say: To have more than one…manufacturer duplicated effort," he said. The benefits of duplication in a competitive environment outweigh the costs, he added. Following the widespread failure of centralized planning, "I thought we had learnt that lesson," he said.

Williams also defended a recent move by Doan to limit the role of GSA's auditing branch in pre-award analysis of the prices offered by vendors applying for multiple award schedules contracts.

"Do you still need checkers? Yes. Do you need checkers who check every order over $100,000? Absolutely not; that's too much," Williams said.

Small businesses would be able to do the work the GSA inspector general has been doing as a reimbursable service for the same or less money, Williams said. GSA auditors charge $50 an hour for pre-award services, according to Eugene Waszily, GSA's acting deputy inspector general.

Auditors also need to understand that their role in pre-award services is to act as an adviser to the contracting officer, Williams said. "I think a lot of the time auditors may believe 'I'm the decision-maker,' and they're not," he said.