Procurement sleuth makes short shrift of commercial buys
- By Bob Little
- Jul 08, 1996
Do not be seen reading this article. It may be a violation of federal norms to learn
what you, the reader, are about to learn.
If some of the organizations and pronouncements in the following seem eerily familiar
but you can't pinpoint why, it's because ace reporter and sometime procurement sleuth King
Oxnard has changed the names of those involved to protect the innocent. (Wink, wink!)
Oxnard obtained a highly confidential copy of the Federal Office of Good Government
Idea's latest Good Idea circular. FOGGI's GI 96-1, How to Buy Retail When Everyone You
Know is Buying Wholesale, contains three startling items:
King Oxnard's sources--strictly confidential--are well-placed within FOGGI. They told
the procurement detective that the problems that led up to the creation of GI 96-1 are
similar to those in a scenario of a dog chasing a car. The obvious question: What does the
dog do after he's caught the car? In the government's case, what happens once the
government OKs the liberal purchase of commercial goods?
Everyone at FOGGI thought buying commercial items would be simple, but once the
government approved the practice, agencies were left not knowing what to do. It turned out
a nightmare, FOGGI staffers said.
Basically, the changes in buying laws make everyone a contracting officer--or at least
everyone thinks he is. But what happens then is that no one within a shop can agree on
what to buy, or who is going to make the buy, or when, or for how much, or from whom or
for how many.
Before, when the contracting folks bought stuff, everyone grumbled about the fact that
what was bought was not what the program folks would have bought. But then the program
offices went ahead and used the stuff anyway--a sort of what-the-heck, we've-got-it
Now, with so much widespread buying authority, the government's buying process is in
gridlock. FOGGI officials decided they had to make a command decision to break up the
The office recognized that now the government must buy retail, or the government
version of buying retail anyway. This raised the secondary issue of how agencies would
maintain their small business statistics. Buying from national chains would trash the
agencies' small business goals.
The FOGGI staff mulled over this issue for a while but got nowhere. Then, someone
reported seeing a news report on TV about people hiring personal shoppers to do their
buying for them at a nominal fee. Why not apply that concept to government COTSI buys? The
idea began to incubate and what hatched was the small business shopping officer, or SBSO.
Here's how the approach works. An agency awards an SBSO contract to a small business.
It is a task-order contract to provide COTSI shopping services. Because it is also a
cost-reimbursement contract, it has virtually no statement of work, except to note that
the contractor will buy supplies on order.
FOGGI recommends that agencies award one-year contracts with several one-year options.
Agencies also are urged to award multiple contracts to, say, four or more vendors
specializing in particular types of shopping services.
Then, anytime an agency has a COTSI need, it would place a task order with one of its
SBSO contractors. To make sure that only small businesses win these contracts, agencies
either can define them as service contracts or provide a small-business preference if they
are supply contracts.
Given that these deals are not set-asides, the small businesses can supply the products
of large companies. And, because Congress basically eliminated the Walsh-Healey Act, the
small businesses no longer must be certified as regular dealers in the commercial products
that they sell. Nifty, huh?
The best part is that the small businesses become an agency's SO. Later, if one of the
SBSOs does really well as an agency's SO, it can be permitted to issue orders to itself
and other SBSOs based on its perception of the agency's need.
Lest you think this far-fetched, remember that across the river in Virginia, the
Department of Really Big Explosions has been buying Heavy-Blast or Mega-Boom (H-BOMB)
devices this way for years from really big businesses.
Bob Little, an attorney who has worked for the General Accounting Office and a
Washington law firm, now teaches federal contract law.