It's no big deal to sell paper and desks to the federal government.
But what about the guy who wants to sell a gizmo that electrocutes flying insects or a piece of equipment that monitors the weather, then makes reports to pilots in a soft female voice?
New products often get a boost on the General Services Administration's New Item Introductory Schedule, a thin publication that tells the government's 37,000 procurement officers what's new in the marketplace and how they can buy it with a minimum of red tape.
"The basic idea is to draw on the innovative nature of the private sector," said Harold E. Roach, the GSA's director of contract management. "We are trying to give an enterprising person, with a good idea and a product with a solid commercial track record, a chance."
Each year, about 3,000 businessmen approach the GSA, wanting to sell their new products. In a recent 13-month period, 1,309 of them applied to get on the list, and 853 applications were accepted.
Two years ago, for example, Lewis Y. Buckingham Jr., president of Premier Chemicals Inc. of Alexandria, decided to try selling the government Oxi-Solve, a new brand of rust remover that was tough on iron but wouldn't scratch soft metals.
Over the last dozen years, Buckingham had placed six other products on the government's list, so he passed up the counseling that the GSA offers potential applicants.
"This program may be difficult for a novice to grasp, but it gives a smart businessman a chance to get in," Buckingham said. "It has led to thousands of dollars in sales that we would not have had otherwise. It's a process worth learning."
The General Accounting Office agreed last year that the system was difficult for the average businessman to understand, and recommended major changes. Roach now says that most are in place, but GAO investigator Ralph Lange said he still wants to see how the new program works before making a final judgment.
In its audit, the GAO found that many applications were rejected because business counselors did not screen them properly. More recent statistics indicate, however, that counselors are weeding out more products and steering other businessmen to the GSA's regular procurement system.
After a businessman sends in his application, other GSA officials check the new item to see if it is similar to a product they are buying under contract (about 19 percent are). The GSA also checks to make sure the government needs the product--personal and luxury items are rejected--and that it has a track record of commercial sales (a factor that bounces another 16 percent of the applications).
That screening, Buckingham said, "means to me that they've looked you over and you're not some squirrel out of the tree--you're a legitimate business." In addition, technical experts review the product to see if it is both safe and effective.
If everything checks out, the GSA draws up a contract in which a businessman agrees to sell his product at a set price for one year to any agency that wants to buy it. With that approval comes the treasured "Goose" number--the industry term for the GS-00S prefix assigned to contracts--and the names and addresses of the government's procurement officers.
The number "is not a mandate for federal agencies to buy, just a license to sell," Buckingham said. "When you go to a government purchasing agent, the first thing he wants to know is how easy is it to get the product. Armed with that Goose number, all a procurement official has to do is write an order, not spend weeks and weeks getting people to approve his purchase."
After the first year, the GSA reviews the sales of a new item to see if it needs another year to prove itself. But success can be bittersweet for the businessman with a new product. If his sales are big enough, the GSA may decide that other companies should be allowed to bid for the government's business.