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 January 2007
Feature
Kathleen Baden is the director of the Supply Standards Division of the Product Acquisition Center, Office of GSA Global Supply. She is responsible for developing and promulgating government-wide Federal Standardization Program policies and procedures. She is also responsible for preparing and maintaining the Federal Standardization Manual. Before transferring to the Supply Standards Division in January 2005, she was a market analyst in the Business Development Center of GSA Global Supply. In this capacity, she was responsible for providing data analysis and market research and for planning and implementing Federal Supply Service marketing strategies.

GSA and the Federal Standardization Program

Optimizing the Use of Voluntary Consensus Standards

The General Services Administration is responsible for administering the Federal Standardization Program, or FSP, by developing and disseminating government-wide standardization policies and procedures, and coordinating civil and military standardization functions to avoid duplication. The goal of the program is to standardize items used throughout the federal government by optimizing voluntary consensus standards or by developing Federal Product Descriptions and reducing the number of sizes and kinds of items that are procured. FPDs include federal specifications and related federal qualified products lists, federal standards, and commercial item descriptions. When used in procurement, these FPDs can generate huge savings.

The origin of the Federal Standardization Program dates back to the recommendations of the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of Government, 1947–1949, also known as the Hoover Commission. A task force report on the federal supply system addressed the subject of “standard specification.” It recommended that responsibility for federal specification activities should reside in a “standards division” in the “central supply organization” in the Executive Office of the President.

Those recommendations were implemented in the federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949, which created GSA and, within it, the Federal Supply Service. This forms the basic authority for GSA’s management of the FSP.

Federal Supply Before GSA

Before the 1949 act, the military and civilian agencies maintained their own supply and inventory programs. These agencies kept few if any records of what they stored and issued from the numerous warehouses they individually maintained, creating much duplication and posing a threat to both the national economy and security. Reorganization studies, most notably the one headed by former President Herbert Hoover, concluded that a central bureau of supply should be responsible for managing all government purchases.

Thus the Federal Supply Service was established as a central organization whose mission was to provide an economically efficient system for the procurement, supply, and eventual disposal of property. Its purpose was to eliminate duplicate functions, standardize product offerings, and establish a professional resource that would leverage the government’s buying power in obtaining supplies and services.

To further define GSA’s role, the 82nd Congress, on July 1, 1952, approved Public Law 436, the Defense Cataloging and Standardization Act. This law established a single catalog system and related supply standardization program, and it was instrumental in establishing a uniform National Supply System. Section 11 of the law requires the “Administrator of General Services and the Secretary of Defense [to] coordinate the cataloging and standardization activities of the General Services Administration and the Department of Defense so as to avoid unnecessary duplication.”

To further the National Supply System concept, GSA and DoD agreed in 1971 to eliminate avoidable overlap between their respective supply systems. The “Agreement Between the Department of Defense and the General Services Administration Governing Supply Management Relationships Under the National Supply System” divided the management of consumable items between GSA and the Defense Supply Agency (now the Defense Logistics Agency, or DLA) and established the criteria for this division. It assigned to GSA those Federal Supply Classes (FSCs) or commodities that are commonly used by federal agencies, but are not predominantly of a military nature, and are commercially available. It assigned to DLA the Federal Supply Classes used in military operations or weapon system support.

GSA was specifically assigned the responsibility to procure consumable items for the executive branch agencies, including hand tools, paint, adhesives, office supplies, cleaning supplies, furniture, kitchen supplies, and outdoor equipment. Most of these products were procured using government-unique requirements included in military and federal specifications.

Transition to Commercial Products

In 1972, the Commission on Government Procurement recommended in its report, Acquisition of Commercial Products, that the government take greater advantage of efficiencies offered by the commercial market. Congress similarly directed improvements to the procurement process by passing the Office of Federal Procurement Policy Act in 1974. In May 1976, this newly created office issued its Acquisition and Distribution of Commercial Products, or ADCoP, policy, which required agencies to purchase commercial products and use commercial distribution systems whenever such products or distribution systems adequately satisfy the government’s needs.

The focus of the ADCoP policy was to take advantage of the innovation and efficiencies of the commercial marketplace, to avoid developing government-unique products when commercial products were available, and to prevent the use of government systems for distributing products when commercial distribution channels were adequate. The policy emphasized the importance of knowing customers’ needs in conjunction with the market conditions before drafting product descriptions. Up-front analysis and market research were key in determining the acquisition strategy.

Soon after the implementation of the ADCoP policy, the commercial item description, or CID, was born. GSA and DoD identified thousands of detailed government specifications for review and recommended that they be either cancelled or converted to CIDs. Converting them to CIDs resulted in many benefits. For example, when a federal specification was used to procure socket wrench sets, there was one bidder, and the unit cost was $145. When the specification was replaced by a CID, seven companies bid and the unit cost was $85. The total savings for 3,000 units amounted to approximately $180,000.

Another outcome of ADCoP was the initiative to use voluntary consensus standards in acquiring commercial products. This practice was strengthened in 1978 when the Office of Management and Budget issued Circular A-119, Federal Participation in the Development and Use of Voluntary Consensus Standards and in Conformity Assessment Activities. This circular established policy pertaining to both interaction with voluntary standards bodies and the adoption and use of voluntary standards. Furthermore, it not only stated a preference for voluntary consensus standards but also encouraged the “participation by knowledgeable agency employees in the standards activities of voluntary standards bodies and standard-developing groups.”

Since 1978, the circular has been revised several times to include annual reporting requirements and to strengthen the requirement to use voluntary consensus standards and participate in developing them.

GSA captured the spirit of the circular by directing its standardization personnel to use voluntary standards in whole or in part, whenever applicable. One such instance was that GSA officially cancelled federal specification PPP-B-636, “Boxes, Shipping, and Fiberboard,” in 1994. ASTM International standards D 1974, Practice for Methods of Closing, Sealing, and Reinforcing Fiberboard Boxes, and D 5118, Practice for Fabrication of Fiberboard Shipping Boxes, were cited as the preferred replacement standards for fabricating new fiberboard boxes, liners, and sleeves. Having a voluntary standard gave stakeholders, including commercial industry, easier participation in the review process. Furthermore, the voluntary standard could be updated more readily to represent new developments and improvements in the packaging industry.

The National Performance Review in 1993 and the Federal Acquisition and Streamlining Act of 1994 re-emphasized the importance of buying commercial rather than government-unique products. (Many remember, during this period, the ashtray that Vice President Al Gore smashed on national television to stress the absurdity of buying ashtrays with a 10-page federal specification.) The National Performance Review tasked GSA to increase the use of commercial descriptions within procurements and to cancel and eliminate documents that call out government-unique requirements. GSA responded by directing its procurement activities to use more commercial standards and examine the need to continue existing federal specifications. Before GSA’s National Performance Review initiative, 54 percent of the documents cited in procurements were commercial; at its completion, 80 percent were commercial. GSA cancelled 30 percent of its federal specifications and converted 36 percent to CIDs or voluntary standards. During the 1990s, GSA continued to emphasize the importance of buying commercial off-the-shelf products, referencing voluntary consensus standards and CIDs, rather than government-unique products. The advantages included greater affordability, shorter lead-times, lower administrative costs, access to new technology, and a broader commercial product line offering more choice and variety.

GSA’s Role Today

Today, GSA, as administrator of the Federal Standardization Program, promulgates policies and procedures via the Federal Standardization Manual. The manual provides guidance to executive agencies on developing, coordinating, approving, issuing, indexing, managing, and maintaining federal product descriptions. It also provides information on adopting and using voluntary standards. All executive agencies are required to use this manual, which complements DOD 4120.24-M, Defense Standardization Manual.

GSA is also responsible for indexing, printing, and distributing all FPDs. Today, there are approximately 6,500 such documents, including 4,943 CIDs, 793 federal specifications, 739 federal standards, and 28 qualified product lists. DoD prepares most of these; GSA is the preparing activity for 287.

GSA continues to mandate the use of voluntary consensus standards when available and encourages its standards developers to participate in voluntary standards groups. When a voluntary standard does not exist, an FPD may be developed and used in procurements. GSA’s goal is to provide the best value to its customers by standardizing commercial consumable items. //

 
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