After more than a decade of gestation, the Office of Management and Budget expects to give birth this month to the Federal Acquisition Regulation--an ambitious attempt to simplify thousands of pages of cumbersome procurement rules and forge them into one government-wide, easy-to-understand regulation.
FAR, as it is known, technically isn't a new set of regulations, nor is it another layer of regulations, said Donald E. Sowle, head of the OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), which Congress created in 1974 specifically to clean up the government's jumbled purchasing system.
Instead, FAR is a "consolidation and simplification" of the government's three existing procurement regulations--the Defense Acquisition Regulation, the General Services Administration's Federal Procurement Regulations and the NASA Procurement Regulation--or as they are known in the contractors' world, DAR, FPR and NASAPR.
Under FAR, Sowle said, private businesses, especially small companies, should have an easier time selling goods to federal agencies. And that, he contends, should lead to increased competition, which should save the government money.
There are now more than 4,000 laws, 64,000 pages of regulations and 46,000 federal and military specifications and standards that affect government procurement--enough to fill a five-foot-long shelf, according to a recent report prepared by Sowle's office.
Contractors seeking a piece of the federal government's annual $160 billion procurement pie routinely receive more than 100 pages of forms and rules when they ask for information about government contracts worth as little as $10,000.
As a result, the report said, many businesses believe that "the first prerequisite of doing business with the government is to hire a lawyer."
Because federal procurement has developed haphazardly, with each agency drawing up its own guidelines under the three procurement programs, agencies often pay far different prices for similar goods. For instance, a recent General Accounting Office study found that one agency had paid $760,000 more than another agency for the same product.
Agencies also write their specifications differently, which often confuses and frustrates contractors, Sowle said. Some agencies have written such rigid specifications for products that the government, in effect, had to create a new industry to meet its needs.
In one case, again cited in Sowle's report, prices of electrical parts dropped 94 percent when an agency agreed to buy commerical products rather than insist that companies meet rigid specifications.
Under FAR, the number of regulations will be cut by 62 percent, Sowle said. FAR also will set uniform bidding procedures and spell out when agencies don't have to seek bids.
"The whole idea behind FAR is to create a simple, easy to understand, government-wide procurement procedure," said William J. Maraist Jr., deputy associate administrator of the OFPP. FAR will be listed as Title 48 of the Code of Federal Regulations; each agency will have its own chapter under that, and will be required to list all of its regulations that are different from other agencies'.
That listing will enable federal contractors to "find and understand all of the rules," Maraist said. It also will allow the OMB to ride herd on agencies to make sure they comply with FAR.
FAR was supposed to be implemented in October, but Pentagon, GSA and NASA officials who are writing it agreed last March to push back its implementation date until April 1, 1984, to give agencies time to train procurement officers and reprogram computers, Maraist said. The final version of FAR is expected to be printed in the Federal Register this month, probably next week.
FAR will be updated regularly by two councils. The Pentagon and NASA will be represented by the Defense Acquisition Regulatory Council, which monitors defense procurement. A new Civilian Agency Acquisition Council, chaired by the GSA and including officials from all major federal agencies, will work with them.
Sowle's office intends to draft legislation during the year to streamline procurement in other ways.
It hopes to broaden the way agencies can seek competitve bids, by easing current requirements that force agencies to advertise in newspapers. But it also will require them to publish notices in the Commerce Business Daily if they decide not to seek competitive bids.
Before the procurement office can proceed it must be reauthorized by Congress. Its funding expires in October, and the Senate and House haven't agreed on whether to extend it for three or five years.