Amazon, IBM Help Government With Category Management

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By Sam Skolnik

Sept. 1 — Executives from big business are sharing their secrets with top federal acquisition officials in an attempt to help make the government's complicated category management initiative a success.

Teams from Amazon, IBM and Johnson & Johnson over the past six months have traveled to Washington to visit with government administrators including Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) Administrator Anne Rung and about a dozen other officials to discuss their own category management systems, GSA official Tiffany Hixson said at a Sept. 1 event.

Hixson, the Federal Acquisition Service (FAS) regional commissioner for the Northwest/Arctic Region of the GSA, said she couldn’t provide additional details about the meetings, as the officials who attended signed nondisclosure agreements. The no-talking pacts were a sign, she said, of how much the companies value their purchasing systems.

A Call for Help

Category management is the effort developed and pushed by the Office of Management and Budget’s OFPP, which groups commonly purchased goods and services into centrally coordinated categories. OFPP’s goal has been to create a more efficient acquisition process — and although it was unveiled in 2014, it’s clearly still a work in progress, a reflection of just how massive and multilayered the federal buying infrastructure is.

Despite the Fortune 100 company visits, Hixson used her presentation before the Professional Services Council (PSC) on Sept. 1 to send out a call for additional help from industry.

As the GSA attempts to implement one of the trickier parts of an already highly complex Obama administration category management initiative — in this case, trying to streamline federal purchasing for professional services as opposed to products — contractors could provide invaluable assistance, Hixson said.

Contractors can provide their thoughts through GSA’s formal request for written industry feedback on the governmentwide Professional Services Category Strategic Plan put forth by the agency last month, Hixson said at the PSC-sponsored event Sept. 1. She also broached a less formal suggestion — a sort of industry exchange program.

If interested, Hixson said, her team would like to host industry executives for three- or six-month stints to get their takes on how the GSA can fit professional services into the category services framework.

“We have gotten little to no industry feedback,” said Hixson, who next week becomes FAS assistant commissioner for professional services and human capital categories. “We really have to get industry to engage.”

Gateways and Hallways

The PSC event came in the aftermath of the release of a plan developed by the Category Management Leadership Council, a group of representatives from the 10 federal agencies that spend the most on professional services.

More specifically, the goal of the Professional Services Category Strategic Plan is threefold, Hixson wrote in her request for industry feedback on the GSA’s website last month.

Within three years, a management model will be implemented that increases the quality of services delivered, and achieves public policy objectives such as small-business utilization and sustainability.

During the rest of the fiscal year, Hixson wrote, the interagency team focusing on professional services will complete a comprehensive analysis of agency buying patterns, including the use of data from the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS).

The team also will be improving the tools used on the Acquisition Gateway — the GSA’s online portal designed to simplify the federal contracting process — as well as in the professional services “hallway,” one of 17 Gateway sites focused on an individual product or service category.

Finally, the team aims to develop a supplier-management strategy to reduce costs and risk, and to improve transparency.

Transparency is clearly important in the professional services field, Hixson has said.

At an Aug. 2 panel discussion, she expressed concern about how much agencies spend annually on services that haven’t been clearly defined.

“Sixty-three billion is a lot of money,” Hixson said — especially given that 40 percent of that spend is categorized on the FPDS site only as “other.”

A team has been combing through individual contracts to more clearly define that, Hixson said at the Sept. 1 event. One early insight, she said, is that some of the previously unidentified services were connected to the IT field, including IT installation, service and maintenance contracts.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Skolnik in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Seth Stern at

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