Vincent D. Burns' office, on the 10th floor of a Crystal City high-rise, is not unlike those of other GS15s. There's a brown leather couch and four matching chairs, a desk that the government considers "executive" size (72 by 42 inches), a credenza and two flags--for the United States and his agency.
"My furnishings are just like anyone else's at my level," said Burns. "They have to be, because I couldn't allow myself special fringes."
Officially, Burns, 35, a University of Maryland graduate, is director of the General Services Administration's Furniture Commodity Center. In short, he's the government's furniture czar.
It's his job to supervise the purchase of $236 million worth of office furnishings for the government each year.
And it's his job to review requests by agencies to purchase unusual furniture.
Burns supervises the purchasing of $1.65 picture frames and $10 free-standing ashtrays as well as $760 wooden desks and $1,000 sofas. He doesn't actually buy most of the furniture, but instead reviews contracts through which federal agencies purchase furniture.
Burns didn't have a career in mind when he was graduated in 1970, so he took a GS5 position in a GSA management training program.
He worked his way up to the top of the National Tool Center, then shifted to furniture. Last summer he was named director.
He says the most interesting part of his job is his almost dictatorial authority to grant waivers when agencies want non-standard office furnishings.
"All non-standard furniture item requests, no matter how strange they are, should come in here for a waiver," Burns said. "Those that get approved are often those which have the highest technical merit."
The 100-plus waiver requests that cross Burns' desk each year must include both a cost-comparison and a justification of why the item is needed. About half end up being approved.
Last year, for example, the FBI wanted 18 desks with telephone connections that could tie in to a computer data base, in this case, non-criminal fingerprint card files.
The desks were not listed among the 100 kinds of furnishings on the government's Federal Supply Schedules. But Burns quickly said yes.
But when the Navy wanted to install 380 solid brass bedside lamps at a new barracks for Marine Corps recruits at Parris Island, S.C., Burns turned it down.
The supply schedule showed that 380 in-stock lamps would cost $3,000, while the Navy's request would cost nearly $21,000.
Among the changes Burns has watched at the furniture center was a shift from maintaing huge stockpiles of furniture for federal agencies.
That led to abuses in the late 1970s when agencies would throw out usable furniture and replace it from the GSA's warehouses. Now agencies buy furniture directly from contractors, with Burns responsible for the negotiations.
Currently, GSA is trying to streamline those procedures and save money by using two relatively new kinds of contracts: "negotiated bid contracts" and "commercial item description" contracts.
In a negotiated bid, Burns is authorized to try to bargain down the price of each company that has offered a competitive bid.
In commercial item description, Burns is working to drop technical specifications for products that the government buys year after year.
Instead, for example, GSA would simply seek bids for a three-drawer metal desk that meets certain technical tests and comes with a warranty, rather than specify exactly how the desk is built.
"People who had manufactured an item that was a quarter-inch too small were rejected some of the time," Burns said. "It didn't make any sense."
"The biggest change in policy in this administration," he added, "is the emphasis on doing everything on a more businesslike basis." CAPTION: Picture, VINCENT D. BURNS . . . yearly tab runs to $235 million