Why not make GSA Advantage the online catalog?
Can a commercial company make a Web shopping mall fly? Years ago, American Airlines'
fabled Sabre system showed how the owner of a system can use it to put its competition at
a disadvantage. It is easy to stack the deck by sorting competitors at the end of the
search results. We would need more than one of these sites to keep the market fair.
The General Services Administration has a strong motive for setting up a computer
shopping mall. In fact, it already has done so. GSA Advantage offers comparison shopping
and credit card purchases of a wide range of items on GSA's Multiple-Award Schedule
As a keeper of governmentwide acquisition policies, GSA also has an incentive to
encourage agencies to get the best value for taxpayer dollars. Although GSA earns more
through schedule sales fees on expensive items, it has a larger stake in maximizing sales
volume. The best way to do that is by providing excellent service for reasonable prices,
thus making sure that agencies are happy customers.
Other agencies have incentives to set up their own shopping malls. By encouraging
competition, agencies expect to save money when their personnel buy. Except for the
Defense Department, few agencies have the size and potential volume of business to make it
worthwhile to set up comparative Web sites.
Steven Kelman, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, has called
for implementation of a federal Web catalog. His electronic catalog task force reported
"a number of federal agencies including GSA, the Defense Logistics Agency and the
National Institutes of Health have begun projects to move some or most of their
indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts to electronic catalogs. OFPP sees
electronic catalogs becoming a prime buying strategy for federal agencies and sees the
need for some common guidelines to ensure that federal agencies maximize the use of
The task force had three recommendations. One, agencies should take a single-face
approach to the extent possible. Two, agencies should link their online catalog and
contract efforts to the Acquisition Reform Network. And three, they should use the
applicable federal electronic data interchange implementation conventions whenever
The task force report is at http://www.arnet.gov/References/Policy_Letters/eciatfrp.html.
If GSA Advantage isn't an electronic catalog, then what is? Kelman should nudge
agencies toward something already in operation with proven effectiveness.
If GSA is at all cooperative, Kelman's catalog should be a reality in weeks instead of
years, or, more likely, never.
Many interagency committees can barely agree on their next meeting date. I don't expect
agreement on technology, look-and-feel, presentation or anything else substantial. And Web
technology lends itself to each agency doing its own thing.
Such agreements are chimerical and ultimately unnecessary. The first agency, be it GSA,
DOD or NASA, to share its application in a reasonable manner ought to call the shots.
How would this work with GSA Advantage? When an agency awards a contract suitable for
online buying-and not every contract is suitable-the contracting officer should post the
items, prices and scope with GSA Advantage.
If only agency personnel are eligible, then GSA could prevent ineligible buyers from
even seeing those items.
GSA should not be expected to do this for free. As with the MAS contracts, agency
contracts should oblige the vendor to pay a percentage of orders made via the Web site.
Having the customer fill in the order forms going to a GSA database should make this
alternative relatively attractive to the vendors.
Of course, some agencies will object to giving GSA a cut. If they think they can do it
cheaper, then good luck. But maintaining an accurate and timely catalog of millions of
items from thousands of vendors is not easy. Online orders are a tricky endeavor. Most
agencies don't have the volume of business or the mission commitment to make such catalogs
So before flying on your own, I suggest you talk with the folks who have been
Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal
information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser.