GSA Goes Shopping for an E-Commerce Portal

GSA wants Federal procurement officers to be able to shop for and purchase commercial products the same way consumers and businesses do: through an e-commerce site like Amazon.com.

The GSA has a March 12 deadline for submitting a general implementation plan to Congress, and it will spend another year doing market research and consulting with Federal agencies. Implementation of the e-commerce portal is another two years out.

The stakes are high–the total Federal spend on commercial products is estimated at $40 billion annually. Interest is high. A recent hearing on the topic was attended by representatives from Dell EMC, SAP Ariba, Staples, Amazon, Overstock, and a variety of industry trade groups.

“We’re looking at this not just as a way to bring in new technology, but really as a way to modernize the entire customer, supplier, and acquisition workforce experience when it comes to buying COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) products,” said Laura Stanton, assistant commissioner of the Office of Enterprise Strategy Management within the GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service (FAS).

Stanton added, “We know that buying products has been challenging. And, we want to be able to provide platforms that are really on par with your consumer experience across the government. We also want to be able to use systems to make simple purchases and shift away from some of the legacy systems that the government has been using, and look to improve how we can really get the best value for the government buyer.”

Numerous speakers at the hearing pointed out that, while the goal is admirable, there are lots of reasons why government procurement is fundamentally different from private purchasing. These include trade agreements, treaties, rules, and regulations passed by Congress, not to mention purchasing procedures that are specific to the Federal government.

“We’re talking about the balance between government’s unique requirements and commercial terms and conditions,” said Roger Waldron of the Coalition for Government Procurement. “If the GSA gets it right, this could be a huge game changer.” He added that this is an opportunity to eliminate unnecessary requirements in the purchasing process, and it will also reduce duplications.

Several speakers argued that the government could deploy advanced software to ensure that purchases complied with all requirements. Or, as Todd Tiahrt, a lobbyist for the National Association for the Employment of People Who Are Blind, put it, “There’s going to have to be some kind of software adjustment because you can’t have an 18-year-old private at Fort Carson ordering marijuana cookies and a bottle of wine with his government credit card.”

Matthew Cromar of SAP Ariba suggested that the best approach would be to show marketplace content alongside available contracted suppliers, and then guide users based on the predefined compliance rules of the organization.

Brock Lyle of Overstock pointed out that according to a recent House Armed Services Committee report, government spending on IT products averaged $13 above market. He said that with competition, “you can conceivably get to $13 below market.” But Lyle argues that this can only be achieved by increasing competition. He argued that “it won’t increase competition or decrease prices very much if the GSA picks two or three favorite vendors to create portals and orders only from them.”

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