May 17 2007

Procurement Without the Pain, Part II

Photo: John Welzenbach

Procurement reforms keep on coming, but don't fret because there's help out there—often at your fingertips—to give you a hand in making smart buying decisions.

In the last issue, I described how a seemingly endless flow of new and revised rules and regulations for procurements are challenging the government to wring the most value from its substantial purchasing power.

Further proof that such changes will continue came in February when the Bush administration's fiscal 2006 budget proposal called for the General Services Administration to merge its Federal Supply and Federal Technology services. The move had been discussed for months as a way to boost GSA efficiency, and the House Government Reform Committee has given its support.

GSA is hammering out the details. At press time, no one really knew what effect the consolidation might have.

What has been clear for some time is how closely acquisition practices are linked to government reform and how much it affects federal executives.

According to a recent survey of federal IT executives conducted by CDW•G, respondents within the government believe the most effective way of improving contracting is to increase the number of contracting officers. According to IT execs, better education and training are also significant factors. (By contrast, only 15 percent of industry executives cite hiring more officers as critical; they point to a need for more acquisition vehicles and increased outsourcing.)

But federal and industry respondents were in close agreement on what legislation—beyond appropriations—most affects the government IT procurement landscape: the Services Acquisition Reform Act. SARA ranked second only to the Federal Information Security Management Act as the law both groups see as most affecting them.

SARA's objective is to transform practices that Government Reform once described as "simply inadequate" to leverage the innovative products and services available in the 21st century.

Services buys are a focus of reform because they account for a disproportionate percentage of total expenditures compared to the procurement of goods, especially with federal IT spending.

This reform push is particularly noteworthy in light of the administration's 2006 budget request, which earmarks $65.1 billion for IT spending, a 7 percent increase over this year.

Helping Hand

In the midst of all this restructuring, we might take comfort in the fact that while change is sometimes upsetting, the results can be beneficial. Few examples of this are clearer than the sway that the Web has had on the federal procurement process since the turn of the century.

Thanks in large part to the electronic-government initiatives in recent years, procurement officials have a wide range of new tools to make buying more efficient. Consider the variety of Web sites, portals and other electronic tools available governmentwide:

GSA Advantage: This Web site, at, offers one-stop shopping from an expansive electronic catalog of products and services, including a comprehensive IT section.

New features include the Schedules e-Library, where acquisitions officials can peruse products available through governmentwide acquisition contracts. In addition, the Advantage e-Buy feature lets users create and solicit requests for quotations from Multiple-Awards Schedule vendors.

FedBizOpps: A point of entry for procurements worth $25,000 or more, GSA's Federal Business Opportunities portal, at, plays matchmaker between government acquisitions teams and vendors.

ECS III: The third incarnation of the National Institutes of Health's Electronic Commodity Store uses the Web to streamline buys of hardware, software, networking technology and systems integration services. The dozens of vendors approved for ECS III include several small or disadvantaged businesses. Like GSA Advantage, the ECS III site also has an electronic RFQ tool.

Standard Procurement System: This Defense Department contracting system uses the Procurement Desktop-Defense application to create a standard format for automated buys across DOD.

FedTeDS: Originally created by DOD, the Federal Technical Data Solutions site, at, provides technical specifications, blueprints and other information important when preparing bids and contracts. GSA and the Homeland Security Department now manage the site as a component of the Quicksilver e-government Integrated Acquisition Environment project.

FPDS-NG: The Next-Generation Federal Procurement Data System, at, is a Web interface to buying data collected from agencies governmentwide. When GSA launched the new iteration of the system in 2003, it estimated FPDS-NG could save the government $10 million a year by streamlining contractor, contract and project research.

No Single Answer

And those are just some of the projects the government has going to ease and standardize IT buying practices. But no matter how efficient online procurement and research systems become, they will never be the silver bullet.

Because the complexities of the government's procurement processes aren't likely to diminish anytime soon, it's imperative for acquisitions staff and program managers to get as much training as possible and have ready access to the latest and greatest best practices. Fortunately, the Web can help federal execs polish up their buying acumen, too.

The Federal Acquisition Institute, for instance, offers a range of online courses. The FAI Web site, at, also offers materials devoted to training, education and procurement policies.

For those specifically interested in services contracting, there's the Acquisition Center of Excellence for Services. The center, at, is a collaboration of the Defense Acquisition University, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, FAI and private-sector organizations. The site, which launched late last year, posts acquisition best practices and other training materials.

Federal acquisition reforms will continue to affect both government and industry. Fortunately, technology is providing some welcome touch points to steady us during these turbulent times.