GSA mulls future of Preferred program

'We found some ... bugs to fix, and challenges with usability and integration.'

' FTS CIO Casey Coleman

Rachael Golden

Lack of interconnectivity continues to plague IT tracking system

Persistent problems with the General Services Administration's modernized IT tracking system have led the agency to hire a consultant to determine what went wrong, while some in the private sector quietly cheer for the GSA Preferred program's demise.

'Preferred is living on borrowed time,' said Larry Allen, executive director of the Coalition for Government Procurement, a Washington industry association.

GSA Preferred, formerly called 3GS, was supposed to give agencies that buy goods and services through GSA's Federal Technology Service a better view of how they spend their money on technology products. In particular, the system was supposed to help agencies keep track of project billing deadlines.

No wider rollout

The system rolled out on a pilot basis in 2004 in Region 3 (Delaware, Maryland, southern New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia) and Region 8 (Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming). Problems with the rollout have prevented it from being expanded elsewhere, GSA officials said.

GSA's commitment to the system may be faltering, if recent budget requests are any indication. Congress allocated GSA $28.4 million for Preferred in fiscal 2004. That figure dropped to $10.6 million in 2005, and the agency did not ask for any funding in 2006.

In 2002, GSA awarded Unisys Corp. a seven-year, $36 million contract to im- plement and support a commercial application from SAP America Inc. of Newtown Square, Pa.

The new system was intended to replace FTS' IT Solution Show Web System and its Integrated Task Order Management System, used by regional offices, and the Task Order System and Online Management Information System, used nationwide.

But from the start, interconnectivity and communications problems plagued the rollout, leaving vendors frustrated because they were not getting paid on time. GSA officials now are wondering if the system needs a few touch-ups or should be thrown out entirely.

'We found some ... bugs to fix, and challenges with usability and integration,' said Casey Coleman, FTS CIO.

One big problem, Coleman said, was the interaction, or lack thereof, between GSA Preferred and agency financial systems, which pay vendor bills. That process has been difficult to establish, Coleman said.

'We need to record when a vendor gets paid,' Coleman said. GSA needs 'to have a back and forth with the financial systems. ... That back-and-forth exchange, in a timely and accurate manner, has proven to be a real challenge.'

While the system is functional, Coleman said it cannot be deployed nationally until those bugs are worked out.

Initially, GSA hoped to phase in the system by the end of 2004.

'We had hoped it would be in a state where we could roll it out to other regions' by now, Coleman said. 'We are always disappointed when things don't go as smoothly as we hoped.'

Under a recently awarded contract, KPMG LLP of New York is to assess GSA Preferred and report by Jan. 5 on how the system has worked and whether it should be scrapped, Coleman said.

Independent evaluation

Although GSA has performed its own 'thorough review' of the system, Coleman said KPMG was tapped for an independent look at the situation and a recommendation on how whether to keep moving forward.

'Our question to them is, 'Are we proceeding in the right direction?' ' she said. 'If not, 'give us your counsel on a better way to proceed.' '

The Coalition for Government Procurement's Allen said GSA had already written an epitaph for Preferred but was not quite ready to hold the funeral.

'GSA has a lot of money in Preferred,' he said. But 'this is not a study to look at how Preferred can grow but rather ... a study to see what comes next.'

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