The Office of Management and Budget released a set of directives on Oct. 16 fine tuning the way agencies buy laptop and desktop computers. While the directives focus solely on specific computer hardware, the move signals what could be a sea change in the way the federal government purchases commodity IT and other products.

Of the three new directives in the Oct. 16 memo, the first is perhaps the most significant: a prohibition on issuing new contracts for laptops and desktops with a mandate to use one of two governmentwide acquisition contracts or IT Schedule 70.

"Make no mistake: the future of federal procurement will be to Act as One," said Kay Ely, director of Schedule 70. "As OMB indicates, we currently buy like thousands of small businesses making smaller awards for the same IT products instead of functioning as the world's largest buyer to negotiate better prices and terms."

Previously, agencies had been encouraged to purchase IT products and services off GWACs or GSA schedules but were able to go their own way if they wanted.

And agencies took advantage of that flexibility, issuing more than 10,000 individual contracts and delivery orders for laptops and desktops in 2014 alone. This federated purchasing has led to wide variation in pricing, with individual units ranging from $430 to $1,300.

There are some exceptions to the new rule and the Category Management Leadership Council (CMLC) — which is coordinating the government's shift to category management acquisition principles — doesn't expect agency use of the big three contracts will ever reach 100 percent.

Scaling back the huge number of solicitations will have a significant effect on the federal contracting market, particularly for those vendors who aren't on a GWAC or Schedule 70.

Rather than be left out in the cold, Rob Coen, program director for the National Institutes of Health IT Acquisition and Assessment Center (NITAAC), which manages CIO-CS, one of the approved GWACs, suggested companies that don't have a spot on one of the approved contracts team up with those that do.

The other vendor group that will be affected by the new rule is small businesses, which are a major focus of the directive.

Smaller companies are less likely to have big in-house federal contracting shops — if any at all — making it harder for them to chase after individual agency solicitations. They tend to have an easier time getting onto GWACs and GSA schedules, which in turn have made significant efforts to include small businesses on their vehicles.

The proliferation of contracts isn't only a problem with laptop and desktop purchases, nor only commodity IT, but the working group determined this was the best starting place, according to Coen.

Compared to other IT acquisitions, laptops and desktops are "pretty straightforward," he said. The working group chose to start there "to be able to put something together that could work well and then build on that and look at different commodity areas."

Joanne Woytek, program manager for NASA SEWP — the other approved GWAC — agreed, saying the directive is more about showcasing the power of centralized buying and category management than creating new mandates.

"While I understand the need for rules, I am hopeful that even without those rules the processes and solutions being presented will increase technical and contractual standardization for the government," she said.

Ely said she expects the next commodity product to get centralized will be software, as outlined in the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), which reqiures the implementation of a governmentwide software purchasing program.

"The memo purports that we are moving to a more consolidated acquisition strategy where fewer contracts will drive greater transparency into pricing by simplifying the collection and comparison of data," Ely said. "If that means centralization, then the future of federal procurement looks very bright."

Aaron Boyd is an awarding-winning journalist currently serving as editor of Federal Times — a Washington, D.C. institution covering federal workforce and contracting for more than 50 years — and Fifth Domain — a news and information hub focused on cybersecurity and cyberwar from a civilian, military and international perspective.

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