United States: What GSA Can Learn From The National Parks Service

Note: The following post is adapted from the forthcoming 2016/2017 GSA Schedule Handbook, published by ThompsonWest, due out later this year.

Any way you look at it, 2016 will be an interesting year.  You may have heard there is an election on the horizon.  That's right; in November 2016, U.S. voters will trudge down to their neighborhood elementary schools and community centers to pull the lever (or, far less climactically, tap a graphic on a screen) for their favorite candidate.  As we draft this preface in Washington, D.C. in June 2016, Hillary and Donald are neck in neck for the White House with more than half of all Americans saying they are dissatisfied with both candidates.  This dismal statistic, of course, is consistent with the growing numbers of Americans who say they are dissatisfied with the federal Government (and Congress) generally.

In contrast to the pessimism surrounding the White House, just a few blocks from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue sits the headquarters of the National Park Service, which consistently turns in extremely high grades on customer satisfaction surveys.  In fact, the NPS stands as an island among federal agencies in terms of citizen satisfaction, consistently achieving a +97% rating among its visitors – an impressive feather in the Service's cap as it celebrates its 100th birthday on August 25th of this year.

So why the stunning disconnect between the Government generally and the National Park Service in particular – and what does any of this have to do with Multiple Award Schedule contracting?

We think a large part of the disconnect lies in the difference between (a) an agency viewed as working for its customers (the NPS) and (b) agencies perceived as viewing their customers as working for them.  Sadly, over the past few years, we have seen GSA slip from the first camp into the second, moving farther and farther from the NPS model.

We grant you it is easier to garner great customer satisfaction when you are selling El Capitan's awesome granite peaks at Yosemite, the kaleidoscopic colors of the springs and geysers at Yellowstone, or the sweeping grasslands of Theodore Roosevelt, than if you are selling toner cartridges, toilet paper, and tools.  But the totality of GSA's difficulties cannot be laid at the feet of its less-than-sexy mission.  GSA as an institution must take some of the responsibility.

Our 20+ years focusing on the GSA Schedule program strongly suggests to us that GSA's leadership needs to take a step back and ask itself if its rules, regulations, and practices are truly designed to make life better for its customers and vendors (the agency's two primary constituent groups), or better for GSA.  The Agency's uber-focus on price above value, for example, seems more about making GSA look good than about giving its customers the products they actually want to buy.  The Agency's efforts to mechanize the contract negotiation and modification process seems more about protecting GSA than about servicing its customers and vendors.  And the Agency's efforts to remove discretion from its contracting officers seems more about mandating consistency than achieving sensibly negotiated contracts.

All of these actions, we submit, contribute to the growing frustration among GSA's customers, its vendors, and, frankly, its own personnel.

Yet GSA does not need to continue down this self-destructive path.  Its supervisory ranks are filled with smart, creative people possessing hard-earned historic knowledge of the MAS program.  These folks likely would offer innovate solutions to some of GSA's problems if only they were asked.  Many of the Agency's COs likewise have deep experience working with vendors and customers, and could offer sensible new ideas that would solve problems and that would be fair to GSA, its customers, and its vendors.  The Agency's lawyers are top-notch and almost certainly have strong and well-thought-out views of how to improve the Schedule's program.  And even the GSA OIG – commonly thought of as adverse to the interests of industry – employs extremely smart, committed experts who easily could name, from their personal experiences, a number of problems and solutions that would benefit all stakeholders.

While we recognize GSA adheres to its standard obligations to host industry days and other forums to hear from its vendors, we submit the Agency would benefit just as much from listening to its own in-house experts; the ones in the trenches alongside the customers and the vendors who are to make sense of an increasingly dizzying array of vague, confusing, and/or conflicting rules.  At the very least, perhaps such an introspective focus would reduce the number of times we hear contracting officers say "I know it doesn't really make sense, but that's the way HQ wants it . . . ."

Notwithstanding the ever-deepening problems within GSA, believe it or not, we remain ardent supporters of the MAS program.  GSA Schedules continue to offer great opportunities for vendors and significant savings for federal agencies.  And while we harbor no illusion GSA ever will become the NPS of the procurement world, we are confident, with attention, innovation, and an open mind, GSA can extricate itself from the "what can you do for me" camp and back into the "what can I do for you" camp.  While we wait, however, we will be planning our celebration of the Park Service's centennial with a visit to nearby Shenandoah National Park (which, incidentally, receives a 98% satisfaction rating from its customers).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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