Buy lines | A wish for GSA: Back to the future

Steve Charles

When people talk about the wide-ranging troubles at the General Services Administration today, I'm reminded of a similarly challenging situation in the mid-1990s that turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to the agency.

Congress had moved to limit GSA's role, particularly in the IT arena, by repealing the Brooks Act, thereby removing GSA's procurement authority for large IT systems above certain thresholds.

Congress wasn't finished with GSA, however. With the 1996 passage of the Information Technology Management Reform Act, later renamed Clinger-Cohen, it stripped GSA of the rest of its authority over IT purchasing and effectively moved that to the Office of Management and Budget. Clinger-Cohen also phased out GSA's congressional appropriation for costs of running its contracting programs, most notably the schedules program.

At the time, many thought that GSA would shrink, and the schedule program would end.

But GSA leaders exerted immediate and decisive action. They rethought and revamped the way GSA did business to give agencies what they wanted: an easier, more efficient way to buy goods. GSA leaders granted access to governmentwide contracts and furnished acquisition services for those agencies that didn't have the resources to do their own procurements.

It was a winning combination. Agencies could order via GSA's schedule contracts or indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity governmentwide acquisition contracts, or they could send purchase requests to GSA regional offices and pay GSA to do the procurement for them.

The move turned a large part of GSA into a fee-for-service operation that enjoyed double-digit growth for the past decade. The programs more than paid for themselves, while charging competitive rates for access to the contracts, procurement assistance services and combinations of both.

But double-digit growth has foundered in the wake of inappropriate contracting practices by a few. Almost overnight, GSA, financially speaking, has begun to take on water.

The Army, Air Force and Homeland Security Department responded by launching their own product and services, multiple-award contracting programs. GWAC programs run by NASA and the National Institutes of Health, together with the Defense Department's multiple-award contracts, offer alternatives to GSA's contracts.

Heating up the competition on the assisted services side are agency-run, procurement-assisted services operations, such as those at NIH and the Interior and Treasury departments.

Fortunately for GSA, those who provided the lackadaisical leadership ? those who let many of the problems develop and then seemed powerless to remake the agency ? have moved on.

Now we await congressional approval of the new reorganization plan. A new administrator has taken the reins of this much-maligned organization and will try to move it forward with clarity of vision and the disciplined execution required to move any organization onward and upward.

My hope for GSA is that it will be able to restore confidence in its contracts so that no agency will need to think twice about placing orders against it, that GSA it will do some competitive analysis, and that it will find its niche in the marketplace as some well-focused GWAC programs, such as NASA's Scientific and Engineering Work Station Procurement, have done.

I hope GSA leaders will be able to articulate clearly the nuances of the many rules and processes to present a single message to buyers and sellers across the country.

I hope GSA bounces back, because from a seller's perspective, being required to maintain multiple, competing contracting vehicles across many agencies adds cost and confusion to what is already the most highly regulated market in the world.

Lastly ? but primarily ? I hope GSA can return to the customer-centric vision it had a decade ago, when management seemed motivated, confident and competent.

Steve Charles is a co-founder of immixGroup, a government business-consulting firm in McLean, Va. E-mail him at

About the Author

Steve Charles is a co-founder of immixGroup, which helps technology companies do business with government. He is a frequent speaker and lecturer on technology and the federal procurement process. He can be reached at or connect with him on LinkedIn at

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