Senators press OFPP chief on mandatory BPAs

Officials disagree about mandating the use of certain purchasing agreements even for the most ordinary items, such as office supplies.

Two senators were baffled recently by the notion that agencies are not required to use a specific governmentwide purchasing agreement for office supplies to get a lower price and save money.

“I don’t get why you don’t just say you have to,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Contracting Oversight Subcommittee, said at a hearing June 30 about interagency contracting. “Can’t the president just say, ‘Executive Branch, you guys have to buy office supplies through this purchasing mechanism’?”

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, said the government needs to let people know what the consequences are if they do not buy from a specific contract. “If we don’t draw the line in the sand, it will not get done,” he said.

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McCaskill questioned Daniel Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), about why the administration doesn’t simply tell agencies they must use certain blanket purchase agreements (BPAs) to buy office supplies. OFPP and the General Services Administration recently awarded BPAs for those supplies.

“If we were a business, we would have done this decades ago, because we would have cared how much money we spent,” she said.

Gordon said vendors told government officials in negotiations for the BPAs that they wanted written agreements that federal agencies would use these BPAs to buy their office supplies. The government awarded BPAs to 11 small businesses and Office Depot, the one large business. After hearing from suppliers, officials had agencies sign letters of commitment, saying their purchasers would, in fact, use these BPAs. The government committed to spend more than $250 million annually for office supplies through those BPAs, Gordon said.

Strategic sourcing is a program the government uses to leverage its power as a massive purchaser to get lower prices from vendors.

The OFPP and senior procurement officials from other agencies are driving toward setting up more strategic sourcing BPAs, Gordon said. He and Vivek Kundra, the federal chief information officer, are working on the next strategic sourcing purchasing line, which will be for information technology, one of the richest targets of the program, Gordon said.

Responding to McCaskill, Gordon said he didn’t want agencies to be breaking the law for not using those BPAs. However, Gordon said he does want these BPAs to be the default contracts through which to buy office supplies.

“I’m not sure we need to make it illegal to buy elsewhere,” because of all sorts of special circumstances can arise, Gordon told McCaskill, who was still surprised by the thought.

At a speech in March, Gordon said he doesn’t favor mandatory strategic-sourcing BPAs.

“The mandatory route was tried for a couple of decades, and I think most people would tell you that it was somewhat problematic,” he said. A similar mandate would not be helpful today, he said.

McCaskill disagreed with Gordon’s view.

“I think you’re going to be disappointed unless you don’t make it illegal,” she said.

John Needham, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office, who testified with Gordon, said agencies have struggled in the past to use BPAs. He said contracting officers must have some incentive to use the BPAs.

OFPP and officials from other agencies are working to make contracting officers more aware of the BPAs for office supplies and what contracts offer. Officials also intend to check up on agencies through better data.

“We are moving out right now on that front,” Gordon said.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

Reader Comments

Fri, Jul 9, 2010 GA

What about all the "new businesses who might want to do business with the government" when all the dollars are locked up in a BPA type contract!!!! So many rules to get on GSA- one being $100,000 annual sales and past performance history. New businesses need to have some opportunities somewhere to meet these rules! All the agencies that have continued to enter and establish "BPA's and IDIQ's awarding for several years "billions of dollars" worth of products, with options of 4 years and renewals, drastically and effectively limit and prevent small businesses entering into the federal marketplace to be able to compete. Example, any small business, woman owned, veteran owned business, minority owned, etc., new to or now entering government market to sell office supplies - completely left out of this opportunity for several years. Effectively prevents them from an opportunity to grow and be a qualified supplier, limits competition! Amazing when you look at the actual awards most offers have only received a couple of bids from firms who have entered a response? GSA schedule contracts and DOD-emall, US Communities, AFadvantage, etc., and ex. DOI BPA's for IT products. The government contract arena splits, subdivides and awards via all these contract mechanisms and only enhance existing contractors who have been in the opportunity zone to get more business and puts a large wedge and obstruction for new "especially small" companies as the supplies they could provide and compete on are placed in a vehicle tying up these opportunities for many years. How many small businesses who would like government business can wait until an existing BPA expires to stay in business! Then when you look at the structure of the commercial industry, who is actually supplying products, and what arrangements they have made with their "JV's, or supply chain partners and rules, access to the products and competition is limited as well. The question should be- do we really want small businesses to grow in this market and gain there 25% of government contract dollars? When GSA has already put these items on schedule, already competed prices, why do any of these contracts BPA's, etc. need to be awarded, especially for COTS, basic supplies, etc. Every time government puts a new rule in place they need to look at a much larger picture of economic growth, what is going on in the commercial market competitive situation, partnerships, and minimize barriers to entry! BPA's only limit competition throughout the supply chain! All the "grants", PTACs, and Government SADBU programs on "How to do business with the government" does nothing but repeat the same seminar, over and over, and the fact is the opportunities continue to be placed into contract vehicles where they are out of reach, just like these!

Thu, Jul 8, 2010 Current CO

I don't understand what the big problem is. CO's should already be trained to use a BPA. We are talking office supplies. It isn't anymore difficult that buying off of a schedule contract. However, I do think the technology needs to be put in place so the vendors BPAs are visible to the government agencies and a mechanism is put in place (outside of FPDS) that agencies report their sales back to the sponsoring agency.

Fri, Jul 2, 2010 Ex-CO

Making this mandatory would be a problem. You would most likely have issues with "fair opportunity" unless you effectively did a full competitive procurement on every supply order. Who has time for that? How is this extra paperwork going to get a firm to quote a better price than a competitive small purchase would get?

Fri, Jul 2, 2010 Rascal

If you want to make it a requirements contract do it - a BPA is an agreement so if you make it mandatory you have to remember that the folks on the receiving end of the order are not bound in the way they are in a contract -- also folks ordering off the BPAs are doing it as part of a much larger job and who the heck needs to be trained to buy a pencil? but if you make BPAs mandatory we go into training mode and oh - do we use a BPA, and IDIQ contract or what for that????-- ordering supplies ahould be easy - so if you make the BPA mandatory you may create bottlenecks for supply needs -

Fri, Jul 2, 2010

It is impressive to see Mr. Gordon explain the issues with using mandatory BPAs. I am sure Senators McCaskill and Brown want to do the right thing but obviously they won't listen to the advice from OFPP and GAO. The Senators are trying to fix a precevied problem that does not exist. Most office supplies purchases are decentralized and done by Government Purchase Cards. Even if you made it madatory to use on the BPAs for office supplies the cost to enforce the policy of making sure every GPC holder purchases offices supplices from the madatory sources would offset any preceived savings. Also the problem with manatory BPAs is there prices are not always the lowest. What do you do then, violate law in order to make a purchase a lower price?

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