The General Services Administration and its components manage a significant portfolio of the government’s spending, delivering the best value on goods and services for government, among other integral functions. As GSA administrator and the commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service, respectively, Emily Murphy and Alan Thomas have worked closely to spearhead a period of significant procurement reform, including combining the two-dozen multiple award schedules into one and experimenting with a government online shopping portal. Federal Times sat down with Murphy and Thomas to discuss how the change has been a team effort and their vision for the future of the agency.
You have a lot of acquisition reform planned, and currently happening. What was the impetus for making all these changes? Is there a significant departure from what past administrations and past leadership at GSA have done?
EMILY MURPHY: For me, there were three primary drivers.
I think Alan will probably agree with me on this. First, make it easier for our customers to find things, find the solutions they need. Second, make it easier for our vendors, particularly small businesses, to offer solutions. Third, make it easier for GSA’s own workforce to manage those contracts in a way, so we can get better value.
Right now, I feel like GSA’s contracts are, sort of, a big jigsaw puzzle. You’ve got to figure out how to put the pieces together and get the solution you want. Hopefully, when we’re done with this, the acquisition reform, we’ll have put the puzzle together for them before our customers or vendors must come and find us.
I think one of the things that’s great about GSA is there doesn’t tend to be Republican contracting or Democratic contracting. It really is all about, how do you get a better deal? How do you get customer agencies what they need? How do you protect taxpayer interests? Hopefully, a lot of what we’re doing is building on the foundations of prior administrations.
In 2005, I came to GSA for the first time. At that point, we were looking around at our schedule contracts. We realized GSA’s own rules for schedules were geared toward the idea that schedules sold items, supplies, goods. But, as we were looking at what was really being sold using those schedules, it was primarily services. It was increasingly services. We went through in 2005, started doing a rewrite of GSA’s acquisition and regulations to refocus our regs on how do you buy services as well? Now, we’re going back and looking at it, not just from a regulatory standpoint, but from a process and vehicle one. It’s not about buying goods. It’s not about buying services. It’s about buying solutions. It’s really, sort of, an evolution of where we’ve been before.
ALAN THOMAS: Yeah, I would agree with Emily on that. I would say it is additive, right? We’re building on what folks have done in the past. I think, we were careful when we came in to listen for a little bit. To listen to our agency customers, to listen to our industry partners, and to listen to the workforce. Then, think about what kind of changes we wanted to make, to make it much simpler to do business with GSA.
The Federal Acquisition Service, we’re using the tagline, “easy, efficient, modern.” We want to make the buying experience just that, from all three of those perspectives, for workforce, industry partners and our agency customers.
I think one good one to mention is the Order-Level Materials rule, which was put in place last year, and we’re implementing. There has been a lot of adoption: over 80 percent of the folks on schedule who can adopt it have adopted it. We’re seeing an uptick in use by our agency customers, and it’s been strongly supported by industry. Because, as Emily mentioned, folks don’t want to sell products or services, they’re oftentimes selling solutions. That’s really a rule that helps them do that at a much more simple and efficient way.
MURPHY: If you talk about going back again, that Order-Level Materials rule is one that GSA has been trying to put in place since the first time I was at GSA, when it was called Other Direct Costs, or ODCs. Then, there was one senior procurement executive who kept trying to call it Contractor Support Items, or CSIs. So much of acquisition reform is really taking the best of what has happened before and building on.
In that vein, how do you make sure these reforms continue over the years, and don’t become victim to someone thinking they have the next best idea?
MURPHY: The goal for every administration is to come in and leave the agency better than they found it. I think, when I look at what my predecessors have done, what Alan’s predecessors have done, this really is an additive process. If we’re building on those successes, hopefully, what we’re building right now is a foundation for what the next administrator is going to want to do. This should never be a static set of items. But, for example, the Federal Marketplace initiative that Alan has really been focusing on. We talk about having four cornerstone initiatives with the idea that it is building a foundation for all sorts of new things that are going to come.
If you go back to GSA’s history, and our mission from 70 years ago. It was to reduce needless duplication, reduce costs and be more efficient in implementing shared services. What those services are have changed over the years, how we do it has changed, but the mission is the same. We’re always going to be finding the best way to deliver that.
Whether it be the work that Alan is trying to do right now in getting better data on our catalog management, or making it easier to combine the schedules, I think all of those will enable whatever Congress decides we need to do next. It’s really just going to be a more solid foundation for everyone to use.
THOMAS: Yeah, I think initiatives stick when you have buy-in from the workforce. When you have the right leaders in the right roles who are driving the initiatives. When they’ve got the appropriate resources. From our perspective, we’re focused on creating the kind of momentum that can be sustained, that sort of outlives the tenure of any one person or potentially a change in administrations, or anything like that. We think we’re at a point now where, in several areas, we have right people, resources, buy in and the momentum that will sustain itself.
As Emily said, there is not a Republican way or a Democratic way to do this. If it’s a good idea, most people are going to want to continue to do it. As the saying says, “success has many fathers.” I think that’s the case here. You have some good ideas. People see them through. There is lots of credit to go around.
Acquisition regulation has been famously difficult for some people to parse out. What are you doing to get that input from the workforce and keep them apace of all these changes?
THOMAS: In almost all the changes that we’re driving, we’re taking what I would call a bottom-up approach. We are involving the workforce in the change; and in many cases, relying on them to help us drive that change.
Having been the consultant, I think there are, sort of, two models for how you can do it. One is the bottom up, get buy in approach. It takes a little longer, but I think oftentimes, sticks better. The other way is to have a group of outsiders and kind of develop some ideas, and then try and drive that change top down. You can oftentimes get results a little more quickly, but sometimes they don’t last as long.
From our perspective, we’ve really involved the workforce in helping come up with the solutions, and then helping implement those solutions. We think that’s really a way to get buy in and sustain the momentum.
MURPHY: I think, if you look across all of GSA’s initiatives, change management is one of the components that we’ve been looking at from the beginning — the workforce being a really crucial part of that, making sure that they’re incorporated at the beginning and making sure that we’ve got training to support them — but it’s also change management looking externally. A lot of these changes were driven by the customer satisfaction surveys. What we learned from our customers they didn’t like. The cataloging is, I think, one of the best examples.
Working with our vendors, and there are a lot of things that they don’t like about having to manage multiple contracts or having different processes in different parts of the agencies. By addressing it comprehensively this way, we’re going to make it easier.
We’re reducing the number of clauses that customer agencies are going to have to have and task orders that vendors will have to be complying with or that we’ll be administering, which means we can refocus some employees toward being business advisors, rather than being paper pushers.
I think across the board, the idea is also there has to be training that goes along with this, as well as involvement as the process is evolving. Alan has done a great job in making sure that we’ve had lots of industry days, lots of customer outreach, as each step of this is being put in place.
Then, even next year, I know one of the reasons we decided to bring back a nationwide training conference was the idea that there is a lot of change happening here. We need to have a unified way of presenting that information to our customers and to our vendors.
THOMAS: In addition to involving the workforce and relying on them to help us do these things, we’ve done a lot of town halls and just been very open, and transparent with people. They don’t feel like things are happening in a black box, then some idea pops out. People understand where we’re going, they get updated regularly on how things are going. I think that generally just makes people feel like they’re going to be more supportive of it.
Probably one of the largest changes is consolidating the multiple award schedules into a single schedule. What is the vision each of you have for when the consolidation is complete?
MURPHY: I think the schedules consolidation is definitely foundational to any reform we want to do. I think I talked earlier about my current view of the GSA schedules being a jigsaw puzzle. How do you put it all together? This gives us a clean way of going in and offering that. It reduces the number of our special item numbers or SINs. But this is just step one.
Consolidating the schedules is the very first step in making it possible to all the other things we want to do with schedules, so that it will help us be better buyers, it will help us be able to make it easier to have small businesses [and] new and emerging businesses come in and join the schedules family. It’s going to help us catalog our data. It’s going to make it easier to provide analytics.
All sorts of goodness is going to come from this consolidation, as well as really giving us a chance to leverage our workforce in a very different way, use technology better, so we can implement things like robotic process automation. We can better track the Trade Agreements Act and Made in America. It really does give us a chance to look at how would you like contracting to exist? How do you continue to have a process of ongoing reform in contracting?
THOMAS: I think maybe one thing that’s interesting to highlight about what we’re doing with the Multiple Award Schedule program: there are a lot of things going on in government right now that are new and innovative in acquisition. Ways to work, in some ways around, the current system. I think it’s also important to take some of existing programs, a core program like the schedules, and make it better. Then, people don’t always feel like they must work around the system, but they can use some of tools and approaches already there.
You are in the beginning stages developing an e-commerce platform. But some people are concerned about how you are going to adhere to some regulations while agencies are buying off an e-commerce platform.
THOMAS: We are in the process of working through that. We’re going to do a pilot, hopefully, end of this year, and beginning of next year. The focus will be on buys only at or under the micro-purchase threshold: $10,000 or lower, which removes some of the requirements.
We think it’s a way to bring many small businesses who don’t currently do business with the government into the government market and give them a little bit of experience serving government customers. We see it as potentially broadening the supply base that the government has access to.
If you know anything about Emily’s career, you know she’s committed to small businesses and access. We think, in terms of being able to involve small business, it’s going to end up being a plus.
MURPHY: Yes. It’s something I really care about. I believe strongly, you need to have small businesses to have a healthy industrial base. But, it’s important to remember that commercial platforms are currently being used. If you look at the dollars that are going using federal purchase cards to online providers, right now, it’s happening, it’s increasing and agencies are actually going out and piloting this on their own, but right now, we don’t have any transparency into it.
This is going to give us the ability to have a controlled way of looking at how are we complying with AbilityOne? How are we complying with the small business rules? How are we doing with service-disabled veterans, and with women in small businesses, and with small and disadvantaged businesses? Figuring out ways that we can better bring them into the supply chain, and make sure that we’re following the mandatory sourcing and those other things, because right now, this is all happening without any control around it. This gives us a streamlined way of getting insight into what’s happening, and then adjusting accordingly.
THOMAS: The most important thing that’s going to come out of the pilot is the data, which will lead to understanding.
What do you think is going to be the most challenging reform that you have planned or proposed to enact?
THOMAS: I believe the most challenging, but also the most exciting, because there’s a lot of benefit, is the initiative we have around catalog management. Emily mentioned getting our arms around the data. There are more than 50 million products that GSA represents out to our customers that they can buy.
I think the reason that it’s probably going to be the most difficult is it touches the greatest number of internal organizations within GSA. It touches all our suppliers, and the systems and some of the issues we’ve been dealing with are, in many cases 40 years old. It’s, from that perspective, a very knotty problem. There isn’t a simple solution that everyone can coalesce around; there are several alternatives we’re considering. None of them solve the entire problem; there are pieces. We’re going to have to figure out how to stitch together what we want to do there in terms of modernization and create the right kind of solution.
MURPHY: I get the luxury of getting to watch you do it; I don’t know that I would want to ever question you on which one you think is going to be the most difficult.
I’d say that they’re also interrelated. It would be very hard to have the initiative itself succeed, if one of those four cornerstones doesn’t succeed. I mean, I think the catalog management is contingent on the ability to consolidate the schedules first.
Do you have a reform that you’re most excited about?
MURPHY: I feel like this is like, “Who is your favorite child?” The four cornerstone initiatives are obviously ones that I care about a lot. There is one other I think is really interesting and exciting, which is how we can increase task order competition for service contracts.
Right now, we spend a lot of money on service contracting to begin with. But we spend a lot of effort making sure we’re getting the best prices by line item at the time of award. This would give us the ability to, instead, focus on making sure we’re getting the best technical qualifications at the initial award, and then, going in and really vigorously competing the prices once we actually have a scope, and we actually know what it is we’re trying to buy.
We’ll get creative solutions that way. But I also think we’re going to get better prices that way.
THOMAS: I’ll get in trouble, if I pick one. I do think those four cornerstone initiatives make up the bulk of the Federal Marketplace Strategy, how to bring them together, the synergies.
For me, I’m most excited about seeing it all put together, putting the puzzle together.
GSA is celebrating its 70th birthday this year. How does reflection on the past influence how you see the future of the agency?
MURPHY: I was a history major in college. When I was nominated, I went and read the Hoover Commission Report on why we created GSA. But I always liked the idea that when Harry Truman created the agency it was to avoid senseless duplication, excess cost and confusion. I really do think that mission today is just as, if not more, important than it was in 1949.
I think, again, if the goal is to leave the agency in a better place than you found it — and I think that’s what every administration tries to do — the question is, have we put in place the right initiatives and the right tools so that, whatever the future brings, we’re going to be able to seize upon it, and deliver for customer agencies and for taxpayers? And are we going to have the right people? Because without the right people, we’re not going to be able to drive those right outcomes. That’s really, I think where we’ve been focusing.
THOMAS: It’s what I would call an enduring mission, right? GSA’s mission, 70 years from when it was created is, sort of, spot on with what President Truman said. I think 70 years from now we’ll still be in that same space. We’ll just use new tools and new techniques to do it. As Emily said, the people will be the one constant that runs through the whole history of the agency.
I think, there are some interesting areas, right, maybe, and just to be a little bit specific. We’re focused. We deliver some centralized services like in our Fleet Management program. I think we’re looking to expand those things. They deliver great benefit and governmentwide. Our goal is to take things that are not core to agencies, free them up, do them more efficiently, and allow the agency to apply more resources to its mission. Fleet is a great example, I think, of where we can do that.
MURPHY: I met with a group of employees. Half of them had been at GSA for less than a year, while half had been at GSA for more than 20 years. And I was talking about what brought them to the agency and what kept them at the agency. The various things that brought them to the agency were fascinating and very individual.
But, when I was talking to people about why they stayed, it was because there was always something new that they could be working on, there was always something new they could be learning and there was always a new way they were able to deliver it. It has been a great initiative where you can tell the people come in, and they fall in love with the mission. But they’re never doing the same thing, because it’s always an evolving mission.
THOMAS: My deputy, Tom Howder, is a career civilian. He has been in GSA since 1987, the only job he has ever held since he graduated from UVA. But, he says, “Hey, I’ve done 11 different things in my time at GSA.”
He has had a lot of variety, a lot of different kinds of experiences all within the agency. But that has kept him. He said, “I didn’t ever feel like I really had to look outside, because when I wanted a new opportunity, I was able to get it within GSA.”
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.