By John Chierichella and Jonathan Aronie

Note: The following post is adapted from the forthcoming 2012/2013 GSA Schedule Handbook, published by ThompsonWest, due out later this year.

The past 12 months were interesting ones for the Multiple Award Schedule Program. To the dismay of many, and the embarrassment of some, the General Services Administration seems to find it hard to stay out of the press these days.

First, in April, GSA hit the press following an OIG investigation into excessive spending at a Public Building Service conference in Las Vegas. According to the OIG, GSA’s “excessive” and “wasteful” spending included unnecessary “scouting trips” to Las Vegas, excessive in-room catering, and impermissible tuxedo rentals. Subsequent reports revealed that such spending also included the cost of a clown, a mind-reader, and a $75,000 bicycle building exercise. The revelations not only threw GSA headlong into the press (and onto the Hill), but also prompted the resignation of GSA’s Administrator and other senior officials. Among the counterproductive responses to the scandal was GSA’s decision to disinvite most of its personnel from the annual “GSA Expo” conference – a conference that historically has provided an opportunity for industry and GSA staff to meet and work together in mutually beneficial fashion.

The event also prompted Representative Jeff Denham to propose abolishing the GSA at a Coalition for Government Procurement Conference shortly after the Las Vegas story broke. This proposal came not only as a shock to the room of GSA Schedule contractors, but also to the DOD, which quickly came to GSA’s defense, commenting that DOD values its partnership with GSA and believes that the partnership needs to be strengthened, not destroyed.

Then, just when you thought it was safe to go back into the GSA waters, Anderson Cooper broke a story on his Anderson Cooper 360 TV show involving GSA-sponsored all-day cooking classes for agency employees in Kansas City at a cost of approximately $20,000. This story not only prompted the GSA FAS Regional Administrator to take to the airwaves for damage control, but motivated newly appointed Administrator Tagliani to make himself available for interviews as well.

While that all would have been enough to give anyone within GSA an aversion to the press (and the Internet for that matter), as we sat down to put the finishing touches on the 2012/2013 edition of our GSA Schedule Handbook, another GSA story reared its ugly head. According to Bloomberg, subsequent to the PBS Las Vegas event, GSA spent approximately $269,000 for a separate awards ceremony that “featured a guitarist, violinist and $21,000 in drumsticks given to participants.” When it rains, it pours.

Against this continuing rainstorm of embarrassing news for GSA, there is no shortage of people taking potshots at the Agency and its people. Aside from Representative Denham’s aborted plan to abolish GSA, GSA’s own personnel seem as ready to dish out criticism as outsiders. Following the airing of the Kansas City cooking class story, for example, GSA’s Regional Administrator for the “Heartland Region” immediately criticized the cooking classes, the Agency, and the Agency’s prior management.

Before turning to the impact that these stories have had on the Schedule Program and on Schedule contractors generally, we do want to say something that the folks within GSA seem unwilling or afraid to say: GSA should not be criticized for looking for ways to make work more enjoyable for its employees, or for looking for ways to make Government employment a more attractive option for prospective new employees. It is perfectly logical to develop creative ways to make Government service more attractive. While we all can criticize the Agency in hindsight for some poor judgments in implementation, we question why no one in GSA is standing up at least for the underlying purpose of the events. In a time when there is no shortage of critics of the quality of GSA personnel, a few cooking classes designed to make working within GSA more attractive is not a silly or nefarious goal. Industry engages in these kinds of team and morale building exercises all the time.

That being said, the embarrassment suffered by GSA as a result of its recent missteps is having a ripple effect on Schedule contractors. We see it happening already – Contracting Officers (“Cos”) are so frightened of the OIG that they have all but dispensed with trying to be proactive and work with contractors to solve problems. Gone are the days when GSA’s contracting officers and their contractors worked together in partnership. Every day it has become more of an “us versus them” environment in GSA contracting. This is unfortunate for GSA and for industry.

We are not saying, of course, that some old school COs still don’t haunt GSA’s hallways – COs with a willingness to work collaboratively, listen to reason, and take a stand (even against an auditor) when appropriate. But these COs are becoming the exception. It is an unfortunate development.

Obviously, GSA’s recent public embarrassments are not entirely to blame for this development. Contractors must share some of the blame here as well. Every time a Schedule contractor finds its name in the papers under the heading “Schedule contractor violates the False Claims Act,” the entire MAS Program takes a hit, contracting officers become more skittish, and the historical trust between GSA and its industry partners deteriorates further.

But there are some bright spots on the horizon. Since we published the first edition of our book back in 2002, we have witnessed a sea change in industry’s appreciation for the risks inherent in the Schedule program, and in its concomitant commitment to compliance. We have seen a proliferation of comprehensive internal compliance programs, well-written Codes of Conduct, effective training programs, and impressive internal control systems. We have seen more contractors approach the MAS Program with their eyes open, and take the time to negotiate a sensible Schedule contract on the front end of the process.

On the Government’s side, we have seen committed GSA personnel working to enhance the MAS Program wherever possible. People like Robin Bourne, the director of the FAS MAS Program Office; Jeff Koses, the director of GSA’s Office of Acquisition Operations, Steve Kempf, the FAS Commissioner; the Agency’s several Acquisition Center directors, and many others, all believe strongly in the benefit and mission of the MAS Program and execute their responsibilities in a skillful and open-minded manner.

So, clearly, all is not lost. The MAS Program will endure because it provides an important service to federal agencies and excellent opportunities to contractors committed to compliance.