Bill to reform services buying nears passage

The government spends more than $135 billion each year on services, and the Services Acquisition Reform Act the House passed last month is intended to improve how agencies spend that money.

The effect on IT services acquisitions could be profound, as the government spent roughly $17 billion on IT services in fiscal 2001, according to figures released this February by the General Accounting Office. (To read the report online, enter 121 in the GCN.com/search box on GCN.com.

SARA would create an acquisition-training fund and would let agencies continue to use time and materials contracts to buy commercial services.

'Civilian agencies haven't focused on training and have treated it with a stepchild attitude,' said an agency senior procurement executive, who requested anonymity. 'SARA also will put to rest in statute the argument over using time and materials contracts to buy services. There is a lot of support in industry and agencies for this provision.'

Que SARA?

The House passed SARA as part of the Fiscal 2004 Defense Authorization Act, HR 1588, by a vote of 361 to 68. The bill has moved into conference with the Senate, which passed its version of the Defense bill, S 1050, without any SARA provisions.

In attaching the measure to the Defense bill, Rep. Tom Davis, SARA's sponsor, followed the path of almost every major piece of acquisition reform legislation in the last 15 years. The Virginia Republican attached about 90 percent of the bill that came out of his Government Reform Committee markup to the Defense bill, a Davis spokesman said.

Davis, chairman of the committee, also was named to the conference committee, which bodes well for much of SARA to remain in the bill, said Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president and general counsel for the Professional Services Council, an Arlington, Va., industry association.

'The authorization bill will be signed into law, and there is a greater likelihood that an agreement will be reached on a bill like this than a standalone bill,' he said. 'This way Congress also can look at the totality of acquisition policy issues because there are some others ones that pertain to the Defense Department only.'

The debate over the use of time and materials contracts for service buys began last July when Angela Styles, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said agencies would buy services only through firm fixed-price contracts. She has said law requires agencies to use such contracts when buying commercial services, which reduces the risk to the government.

After industry, congressional and agency criticism, OFPP backed away from the restriction but vowed to reconsider it soon.

The issue remains a source of contention between OFPP and agencies and industry, and SARA's provision would resolve the dispute, the procurement executive said.

Another provision of the bill would set aside 5 percent of all fees collected through the use of governmentwide acquisition and multiple-award contracts for a training fund for acquisition workers in civilian agencies. 'SARA will let the Federal Acquisition Institute do what it was intended to do,' the procurement executive said. 'FAI will be able to increase the number of courses, refine competency and skill levels of personnel and give better tools to he acquisition work force.'

FAI typically has received $1 million annually, compared with the Defense Acquisition University, which receives about $100 million a year.

Renato DiPentima, senior vice president of consulting and systems integration for SRA International Inc. of Fairfax, Va., said the new source of funds would have an immediate payoff for acquisition workers.

'With so many changes to the acquisition laws and regulations throughout the 1990s, this type of work force training is essential,' said DiPentima, who spent 30 years in government before moving to the private sector. 'The training will bring people together more easily to share skills and exchange ideas.'

There also is wide support for SARA's provision to establish chief acquisition officers, DiPentima said. It elevates the position to equal footing with a CIO or chief financial officer.

But both DiPentima and the senior procurement executive expressed reservations about the position going to political appointees instead of career federal employees.

'The question is whether agencies will be able to find qualified people who want to take the position,' the procurement executive said.

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