GSA plans big moves in e-commerce

In the coming year, GSA will tackle the multiple complexities of launching an e-commerce acquisition platform from scratch.

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By the end of 2019, federal government acquisition could look a lot more like the consumer experience of shopping online.

The General Services Administration is in the process of creating e-commerce acquisition platforms from scratch, as mandated by Congress in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.

The officials in charge of developing the portals have relied heavily on input from the commercial sector on how to move ahead. GSA issued the next chapter in its effort on Dec. 4. with a request for information on its draft plans for creating a kind of for federal buyers. Comments are due Dec. 21.

Initial plans for the platforms unveiled just before a Dec. 12 industry day on GSA's Interact site offer some initial specs: a maximum $10,000 threshold for each order, in-depth product descriptions, content review capabilities and shipping status information for buyers.

A report on the effort is due in March, and a proof-of-concept pilot is set for the end of 2019.

An e-commerce portal is not an easy lift for a number of logistical and regulatory reasons. GSA has to thread the needle of aligning federal purchasing practices and rules for commercial-off-the-shelf goods with commercially operated platforms for consumers that operate with substantially less restrictive practices.

Commercial portals are focused on individual consumers, so the agency's portal effort will be treading relatively new ground, GSA officials said at the recent industry day.

"This is a true quadratic equation -- GSA, the platform providers, sellers, the ordering agency," Matthew Blum, associate administrator for the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said at the industry event.

Managing the interaction of those four groups when it comes to portal configuration, fees, data collection, feedback and compliance with federal acquisition rules will be daunting.

Laura Stanton, GSA's deputy assistant commissioner for the IT category, said the e-commerce platform will be shaped by industry comments. In remarks at the industry day, she noted some of the challenges her agency faces and detailed the agency's plans to move ahead in the next year.

The program, she said, will be implemented "over several years, allowing the government to consider such issues as data security, supply chain risks and cybersecurity."

The thorniest of issues involved with setting up the portals, however, could be finding a way to layer best practices in commercial portals with federal buying regulations and practices.

Congress asked GSA "to accept all commercial terms and conditions at the same time that we make no changes to our existing procurement laws and regulations," Stanton said. "For those of you who are familiar with both worlds, you're aware of the challenge that presents to us, and we have worked very hard to sort of thread that needle in the most useful way possible," she said.

Keeping purchase amounts for the planned pilot below the $10,000 micropurchase threshold "really keeps us very closely aligned to the commercial buying practices," said Stanton. The NDAA had originally directed GSA to use a $250,000 threshold. In its newly issued documents, the agency said the lower threshold will let it test broad reform concepts "in a more controlled and structured environment."

More specifically, according to procurement expert Larry Allen in remarks on the effort, the lower threshold will help the agency avoid some of the regulatory limits on government purchases above it, such as those imposed by the Buy American and Trade Agreements Acts. Neither act applies to purchases below $10,000.

The NDAA, said Jeff Koses, GSA senior procurement executive, didn't limit product categories, but it did ask GSA to take a close look at IT and health care products in regards to supply chain security.  GSA concluded that there is always going to be some level of risk with those products and that risk increases with the size of the order, with more complicated IT services and the complexity of the supply chain the product or service traverses before it's offered by GSA, Koses said.

The lower micropurchase level helps the agency learn before going big with its portal offering.

"We think that starts us at a pretty low-risk environment," Koses said.