The federal organization responsible for ensuring that government agencies acquire goods and services from contractors that employ blind and other significantly disabled workers is in a tight spot, the AbilityOne Commission’s Inspector General found in a Dec. 2 report noting several management challenges that threaten the program’s stability.

The AbilityOne program, which has existed in some fashion since 1938, requires government agencies to make sure that a certain amount of their purchases come from contractors that fulfill the requirements for blind and disabled employees. But other procurement programs with conflicting priorities and a lack of sufficient resources mean that the program has experienced an “erosion” of its statutory authority.

According to the report, requirements that the Department of Veterans Affairs make certain purchases from veteran-owned small businesses and requirements under the Randolph-Sheppard Act to provide blind persons with employment have deprioritized AbilityOne requirements.

In addition, the AbilityOne Commission is understaffed, leading to challenges in maintaining compliance and effectiveness.

“The Commission does not have adequate staffing and resources to effectively execute its responsibilities and sustain the mission to provide employment opportunities in the manufacture and delivery of products and services to the federal government for people who are blind or have significant disabilities,” the report said.

“The Commission, with 32 full-time employees, is responsible for the administration of the AbilityOne Program that is a source of employment, by more than 550 [nonprofit agencies], for approximately 45,000 people who are blind or have significant disabilities. The commission administers contracts for more than $3.6 billion in products and services to the federal government annually through the AbilityOne Program.”

The commission has requested funding for seven additional full-time equivalent employees in fiscal year 2020, but repeated continuing resolutions have delayed a final budget decision in Congress for any part of government.

In the meantime, the commission has been able to hire some employees to address the need to analyze the effectiveness of the program, but those efforts have still been under-resourced.

“According to the Commission’s FY 2020 Congressional Budget Justification, the Commission hired a data analyst who is shared by the [Program Management Office] and chief of staff. However, the PMO has been challenged in performing data analytics of [central nonprofit agencies] reporting requirements and submissions to uncover actionable insights, and then recommend business operations that can improve overall program performance,” the report said.

“Increased resources are needed for the PMO. The cooperative agreements emphasize employment growth, program integrity, support for nonprofit agency employers participating in the AbilityOne Program, as well as enhanced training and communications. A strong focus on increasing resource allocation to the PMO office needs to be addressed by the commission.”

The AbilityOne Program also faces challenges from increased e-commerce use at agencies, as such platforms do not keep agencies accountable for meeting procurement requirements.

The General Services Administration’s plan to create a government-specific e-commerce platform could provide some support for AbilityOne, as GSA Administrator Emily Murphy has said that such a platform would provide concrete insights about agency spending habits and keep procurement officials from turning to commercial platforms.

That platform is set to start testing a prototype in early 2020.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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