GSA's Future Not so Rosy

There may be changes in store for the GSA, though the Republicans have other things to prove first

Significant changes are in store for the General Services Administration. Between the National Performance Review's recommendations and those of the now famous "Computer Chaos" report issued by Maine Republican Sen. William Cohen in October, the government's buying agency is a prime target for reorganization.

But whether there is enough time to implement those changes and whether procurement reform turns out to be a high enough priority for the 104th Congress is another question entirely.

In general, the feeling seems to be that although the procurement process and GSA's standing are important concerns, the Republican Congress may have more important issues on the table. Many believe the 104th Congress must complete its Contract With America over the next two years -- or find itself in a Democrat-controlled Congress again.

"The Contract With America was very ambitious, but whenever you take a risk like that, there is also a consequence," said Olga Grkavac, acting president of ITAA. "If they promised the public that by 100 days they will at least get a vote, they had better get one. That is going to be their top priority."

"We've got two years, and how much can happen in that amount of time?" asked Don Page, chief of the acquisition reviews division at GSA's Office of Information Resources Management. "You still have a Democratic president. Even though the Republicans are jumping for joy now, they are going to get serious and slow down a little by the beginning of the year. They are in for some heavy contemplation and aren't likely to jump off in some ridiculous direction."

Sen. Cohen's report raised many of the salient issues, some of which essentially repeated the findings of Vice President Gore's NPR and some of which were new.

One of the biggest messes at GSA is called the General Services Administration contract schedule. The schedules are essentially a catalog of pre-approved products government agencies can buy, in limited quantities, without having to do a full-blown procurement. Agencies bought nearly $1.5 billion in computer equipment off the schedule in 1993, or approximately 4 percent of all federal information technology purchases. But the process of negotiating schedule creates mountains of required data and eats up precious resources -- so much so, that a cottage industry of consultants has emerged to help companies get their products on the schedule.

This process irks industry for a number of reasons. GSA demands the best commercial price a company offers -- a tough proposition given commercial sales and discounting practices, not to mention the ever-falling price of technology and fierce competition. And despite efforts to simplify the process, negotiations for schedules are taking longer and longer. Last year, for instance, many companies didn't receive 1994 schedule approval until the year was more than half-passed. Companies such as Microsoft and Lotus were so outraged that they boycotted the schedule, although they later relented.

But that's not the only complaint. GSA's other main functions include approval of major information technology automation projects for government agencies and managing the GSA Board of Contract Appeals, a forum for companies to protest contract awards.

The former particularly vexes agencies, which see GSA's delegation of procurement authority, as they are known, as an unwarranted intrusion on their autonomy. And many question whether GSA even has the staff capable of determining the wisdom of complex information systems projects.

Meanwhile, the Cohen report argues that the Board of Contract Appeals essentially duplicates the functions of another similar forum at the General Accounting Office, and it should be eliminated accordingly.

This is a tricky issue for industry, which, on the one hand, sees the protest process as needlessly prolonging buying cycles. But it also helps losing bidders recover business and stall contracts -- in the hope of forcing a new contract to be issued.

The idea of maintaining an extra court of appeal seems to have prevailed, at least so far as industry is concerned. Accordingly, the consensus seems to be that GSBCA will avoid the axe.

"We favor the current protest forum, which gives vendors an option depending on the situation. There are some situations where you may want to go to the GSBCA, which is more formal and extensive. There are other occasions where you might want to go to GAO, which is more informal but lengthier," says Grkavac.

Meanwhile, talk of the Brooks Act's demise is rampant. Passed 20 years ago, the Brooks Act was designed to provide more oversight of agency computer purchases -- in large part because of complaints that IBM had established a near monopoly in the federal computer market. The law gives GSA much of its authority. Now, its demise may be a foregone conclusion, although no one agrees on the timing. "Changes to the Brooks Act probably weren't realistic as long as Brooks was in Congress, because he personally objected to any changes," Grkavac said. "In the 104th Congress you probably will at least see changes in the Brooks Act seriously discussed. Whether they get implemented is another question."

"The Brooks Act served us very well for 20 years but has not served us well in the last ten years. It should absolutely be abolished," said Tom Hewitt, president of Federal Sources Inc., McLean, Va. "Nobody needs it, nobody wants it and there is no value that comes out of that process. The Brooks Act assumes a centralized authority, which used to be appropriate. But today, in this world of empowering employees, the Brooks Act does the opposite."

There has even been talk of abolishing GSA altogether, although industry observers don't really believe that will happen. "We need a central home plate for information technology and the logical place is GSA," says Hewitt.

"But we want it to be different. We want strong players supporting greater and more effective use of information technology, not trying to tear it down. Today, GSA worries about the price of a disk drive. The new GSA, I would hope, would be worrying about a business solution to a government problem where information technology is the implementing tool."

Meanwhile, GSA faces management turmoil amidst claims that Administrator Roger Johnson has abused his office -- taking limos on the taxpayer and logging minor, borderline-inappropriate expenses. He has also irked longtime GSA employees, who regularly spread nasty gossip about Johnson via e-mail and newsletter. And he has maintained ties with his former private sector employer, Western Digital, beyond the time he said those ties had been severed.

There is some irony in all this. Johnson, a lifelong Republican, was formerly the hard-driving Chief Executive at computer manufacturer Western Digital. He is one of a crop of computer executives, most Republican, who jumped to Clinton's support -- former Apple CEO John Sculley, Edward McCracken from Silicon Graphics, John Rollwagen, former CEO of Cray Research.

When Johnson took his job, he did so as a self-avowed outsider hell-bent on fixing GSA. In a press event earlier this year, Johnson said he saw his job as essentially putting GSA out of business. Accordingly, his plan was to increase GSA's focus on automating the procurement process, accepting schedule bids online, and so forth.

And he became a vocal advocate for Al Gore's Reinventing Government initiative, which singles out the GSA for much criticism. That report, incidentally, embraces much of the Republican rhetoric of easing oversight, bureaucracy and management -- of which GSA is perhaps the quintessence in the federal government. The logical extension of this decentralized approach is to move the authority for purchases away from GSA and to the agencies.

So, in fact, the Republican change may really be the essential boost Clinton, and Johnson, need to pursue their goals at GSA, which as an institution has so far proved adroit at protecting its own neck and lashing out at those eager to clip it. But the question remains: Has Johnson so compromised himself, in the eyes of both legislators and GSA employees, that his authority has been effectively nullified?

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