FAS Chief Aims to Chart the Future of Government Buying

DigitalHallwayGSA wants to be the buying agency for the federal government—both now and in the future. To further consolidate what, in recent blog post, Federal Acquisition Service (FAS) chief Thomas Sharpe referred to as a “fragmented acquisition landscape” GSA is working on a new approach and establishing a new platform for government procurement; one he hopes will ensure that the government will “act as one” when buying.

Specifically, Sharpe is pushing the idea of category management, which—once implemented—would “guide federal agencies to the right solutions by easily and centrally locating acquisition vehicles, suppliers, past transactions and prices-paid data[.]”

So FAS is busy identifying core categories of business, such as complex IT and professional services, and developing its expertise. He reassured potential customers that by the time category management is unveiled, individual GSA managers of each category will be able to provide expert guidance and market intelligence to customer agencies.

All of this will be rolled out on the Common Acquisition Platform (CAP), billed as the next-generation technology platform and strategy for federal acquisition. The platform is intended to pull purchasing and pricing data from across the government and leverage it against GSA’s own expertise in buying behaviors in order to “guide buyers to the best solution.”

This concept is being referred to as the “category hallway” where a buyer chooses a category and proceeds down a hallway that contains information and expertise for a particular purchase. Over time, these hallways will be built out with more sophisticated capabilities such as an e-commerce solution and a contracting library of best practices.

Implementation of this initiative will take time, and GSA plans to release more details on its efforts in coming weeks. But ahead of a clearer picture of how category hallways will actually work, some questions seem in order.

Sharpe noted that category management is meant to drive government purchasing into “controlled categories.” Is category management a further attempt to commoditize professional services, similar to early OASIS efforts? Prices for professional services, particularly high end services, depend on what services were provided, and those are rarely the same. 

Further, labor categories, rates, and hours are essential ingredients to understanding price—those elements are not readily available in any database. The success of category management largely relies on the sharing of data from systems across the government; systems that numerous studies have shown to be significantly flawed. Does GSA run the risk that category managers will be “guiding buyers” based on questionable information? And how can GSA ensure data and system integrity? Especially when posting competitor prices within categories?

While GSA’s work in this area is commendable, these questions and challenges will have to be addressed and overcome as it aims to streamline the government purchasing process.

Is It Time for a Training Line of Business?

TimeMoneyReducing budgets and increasing efficiency is standard fodder these days in all discussions about Federal Government operations. Whether discussions focus on government civilian pay and pay systems, retirement contributions, veterans’ benefits, redundant and overlapping programs, or Federal real estate, the need to improve return on investment and reduce spending is a pervasive theme.

For more than a decade, the Federal Government has been introducing line of business (LOB) initiatives to reduce redundancy and increase process and system standardization using shared services. LOB initiatives include financial management, security, and human resources. A 2009 Cost Benefit Analysis conducted by NASA estimated that the HR LOB managed by OPM would save more than $1.3 billion in costs.

As downward pressure on the Federal budget continues, consolidation of redundant services into shared service LOBs should continue across the Federal Government. Perhaps one area that warrants serious consideration for consolidation into a shared service center is in the procurement of cross-domain competency training. With agencies at all levels of the government challenged to provide needed training to personnel, breaking down silos between agencies and removing redundant infrastructure required to procure, delivery, manage, and evaluate training on core common competencies may offer a way to stretch Federal training investment.

To promote dialog on the consolidation and sharing of training across Federal agencies, here are few positives and potential negatives associated with creating an interagency training shared services center.

Pros:

Cons:

More efficient administration of training and training contracts

More efficient may not mean less expensive

Streamlined administration reduces overhead burden and workload (for agencies and contractors)

Shared service center becomes a “single point of failure” for procuring training that could lead to delays in contract awards

Increased consistency in quality of training offerings

Less ability to customize training to the specific agency context

Removes redundant training management systems and infrastructures

Integrating agency specific technical training into a shared serviced learning infrastructure could require significant investment

Uniform training evaluations enable better evaluations of effectiveness / ROI across programs and vendors

Harder to create evaluations that link directly to agency specific performance measures

 

In her closing remarks for the National Treasury Employees Union annual legislative conference, OPM Director Katherine Archuleta, noted that the 2015 budget will include measures to “support the exchange of training ideas across government.” This idea exchange could be an important first step in moving to a training shared services concept.

Open and thoughtful dialog about how to save money while providing the high quality training experiences Federal workers need (and deserve) has to be the cornerstone of any meaningful effort to optimize return on investment for government training resources.

When Purpose Trumps Procedure

GavelSometimes, even in matters of appropriations law, the reason for going outside of standard operating procedure can trump following it.

While teaching a recent Appropriations Law Seminar, a student asked a very good question about a situation where the IT staff of the agency directed the procurement office to purchase equipment without going through traditional channels.

The IT staff wanted to procure a data line that would enable hearing impaired employees to make video telephone calls. The agency is normally supposed to go through the department’s information systems agency to procure data lines, but the IT department warned that the type of data line they would provide was not appropriate for the situation. They even cautioned that obtaining a waiver from the information systems agency to procure the data line through a local cable company could take up to 6 months!

So, after checking with their command deputy, the procurement office had a verbal approval to purchase the data line through the local cable company instead of the department information systems agency. But my student wondered:

Without a formal waiver from the information systems agency, will this purchase hold up against the scrutiny of an audit?

My opinion is that, yes, this purchase would not be questioned if the agency is audited in the future. Obtaining the data line for hearing impaired employees falls under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires the U.S. government to provide reasonable accommodation to employees with a disability. To not do so may be considered discrimination against employees who have mental or physical impairments that limit one or more major life activities.

Of course, everyone, including the local cable company, needs to remember that the data line remains the property of the U.S. government.

Oregon Expands Monitoring of IT Projects to Increase Quality

Cover Oregon WebsiteSometimes the best thing project teams can do is to learn from past mistakes. And if the biggest mistake was not checking on project quality throughout the process, then the lesson learned should be to use a better project management oversight process! The state of Oregon is doing just that as they recover from the challenges of their Cover Oregon website, a project that is intended to serve as the state’s implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Oregon is now looking ahead at its current and planned IT projects with the lessons learned from Cover Oregon in mind. Eugene, Oregon paper The Register-Guard reports that the state has increased its list of monitored IT projects from 12 to 80. This is a response that clearly echoes Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber’s statement that, “It is critical that we learn from this project and adopt whatever changes are necessary to improve project management and safeguard public investments.”

Numerous state reports have made it clear that during the Cover Oregon project, the disjointed leadership overseeing the project made it difficult for workers to report project issues and receive clear guidance as to how to address them. This is a byproduct of shoddy quality processes within the management of the project. This meant that as the project went on, no one working directly on the project was empowered to make decisions about it, including stopping the project or redirecting efforts when necessary to address challenges and budget questions or redefine scope.

As examined in Management Concepts The 77 Deadly Sins of Project Management, to avoid shoddy quality, project plans and parameters may need to be reset to bring the project back on track. But someone needs to be empowered to monitor the project along the way to help workers make those calls and approve those decisions. Which is exactly what Oregon intends to do for its IT projects going forward.

The process of closely monitoring these projects will help the state to better track the progress of the projects, identify problems early on, and tie funding to project milestones along the way. Furthermore, the state hopes to create a central point of accountability for IT projects, which will hopefully lead to better communication between project teams and leadership as well as increased sharing of information across projects.

To learn more about how shoddy quality project management processes can impact projects, check out the complete book The 77 Deadly Sins of Project Management from Management Concepts Press.

Senate Approves DATA Act, Final Passage Expected Soon

Big DataOn Thursday, April 10, the Senate approved the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) by unanimous consent.  The Senate action follows weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations between House and Senate supporters, and the approved bill represents a compromise between the two chambers. The House, which previously approved another version of the DATA Act by a 388-1 vote in November, is expected to give final approval to the bill in the next few weeks.

The DATA Act is designed to increase transparency and accountability of federal grants, contracts, and government spending. The bill would require that all government spending be published and publicly available on USASpending.gov. To achieve this objective, the Secretary of the Treasury and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) would be required to develop standardized government-wide data elements to ensure uniformity of reporting requirements.

The administrative burden of complying with the DATA Act requirements will fall primarily on federal agencies. Provisions in the legislation requires federal agencies to submit grant financial information to USASpending.gov, therefore, grant recipients and pass-through entities should not see an increase in reporting requirements. Grant recipients may, however, see an increase in financial monitoring as federal awarding agencies will be required to track every federal dollar. This requirement may require grant recipients to improve accounting procedures and internal controls.

The White House has not announced President Obama’s position on the legislation. In January, a memo from OMB to agency leaders regarding the DATA Act was leaked to the media. In the memo, OMB proposed significant changes to the legislation, which bill supporters claimed were attempts to severely weaken the bill. The final version of the bill does not contain the proposed changes that OMB supported. With such overwhelming and bipartisan support from Congress, it is almost certain the bill will become law.

Washington Post reporter Andrea Peterson wrote a fantastic article summarizing the practical implications of the DATA Act. Her article, “The DATA Act Just Passed the Senate. Here’s Why that Matters.” can be read here.