It is impossible to overlook the U.S. government’s ongoing presence in fields like law enforcement, corrections, and fire/emergency medical services. The federal government is a critical source of funding and support for state and local first response agencies across the country. Its influence, tailored by any number of practical, financial, and political concerns [PDF link] reflects the government’s size, cumulative expertise, and raw spending power.

Indeed, federal heft in private and public marketplaces is so expansive that it can essentially grant state, local, and tribal governments relevant portions of it with a pen stroke. This, at a high level, is the idea behind the General Services Administration (GSA) and its increasingly popular Cooperative Purchasing Program. This collection of buying perks is designed to let smaller government entities—including responder organizations and their funding governments—leverage federal influence when buying various products and services, despite operating at a fraction of the size. These agencies get reduced prices on emergency management tools and other must-haves, the federal government effectively gets to expand its monolithic purchasing power to participating entities, and both enjoy greater volume discounts and access to merchants that may otherwise not find government contracts economically feasible.

Structurally, the collection of buying services under the GSA banner is quite similar to co-op buying programs for gasoline, groceries, and other essential purchases. Many U.S. residents—especially those in rural areas—have experience with such cooperatives. The relative simplicity and similarity may do much to explain the Cooperative Purchasing Program’s immense popularity at different levels of government.

As anyone responsible for securing funding will likely admit, acquiring dollars through grants and similar federal sources can be essential to basic functions but highly difficult to achieve. Strict requirements, stiff competition, and even political pressure from the community can all present stumbling blocks. The controversy raised by sending military surplus to requesting law enforcement agencies is one example of how complicated such aid can be for a given community. By contrast, the $800 million or more that state and local agencies spend on GSA purchasing per year reflects the growing use of a program almost anyone, regardless of partisan or economic beliefs, can support without reservation.The GSAs Cooperative Purchasing Program lets smaller government entities leverage federal influence when buying various products and services. Click To Tweet

Comparing cooperative purchasing to another popular form of federal assistance: grants

While an $800 million spend does seem somewhat pale in comparison to the requested $3.9 billion the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) planned to spend on state and local grants in fiscal year 2019, key differences separate the average GSA purchase from the average grant request.

First, budgeted grant money is capped and often sent to applicants who can present plans closest to the grant-writing agency’s vision. This leaves others with just as legitimate a need to seek alternate methods of funding. For example, a county facing a methamphetamine epidemic may be disappointed to discover that federal attention and funding patterns have shifted toward the national opioid crisis, a distinction that blocks the county from accessing much-needed assistance.

Second and similarly, it is no secret that any government uses grants and other funding as a manner of asserting influence—a necessary tactic to meet its ends, to be sure, but one that can again leave agencies facing hard decisions. In a slightly different context, the ongoing standoff between various U.S. states and the federal government regarding marijuana legalization exemplifies the point: A state or local organization may be reluctant to make changes that will put its funding at risk.

Third, grants often provide necessary funds, but are not always designed to render agencies other forms of support. While few agencies would snub a grant payment because they have to do a little legwork to make the most of the money, the GSA benefits available to states and municipalities extend past savings and into the realm of assistance, including advice and training.

The intent is not to paint the GSA option as better than grant programs, as such a comparison has little bearing on the immense benefits that both types of assistance can provide. Generally, qualifying for one does not disqualify an agency from the other. Most response agencies are free to collect grant funds and utilize co-op buying power simultaneously.Generally, qualifying for one form of funding does not disqualify an agency from the other. Most response agencies are free to collect grant funds and utilize co-op buying power simultaneously. Click To Tweet

Exploring further perks of the GSA program

Financial savings are just one dimension of the value an agency can reap when purchasing through a GSA contract. Worth noting first is the comparative ease with which purchasing entities can claim GSA savings. As the office’s list of schedules prominently notes, agencies “that clearly fall under the definition of state and local government do NOT need to request an eligibility determination,” and those with less clear eligibility are free to submit a request for determination.

In browsing the GSA offerings, one sees a list of items, products, and services one would expect the federal government to cultivate and purchase using its massive buying power. For example, the mainline Cooperative Purchasing Program supports “IT, security, and law enforcement products, services, and solutions that support everyday activities and your overall mission.” The formerly-titled Schedule 70 is designed to help users glean better value from more than 7 million technology products and services. In a rapidly evolving technological landscape, this elevates that list to one of immediate interest, even before price becomes a consideration.The GSA partners with everything from startups to multinational giants. This makes it easier for agencies to obtain precisely the tool they want. Click To Tweet

Key to the allure is the GSA’s list of some 4,600 “pre-vetted” vendor organizations. The breadth and depth of modern tools can often send stakeholders down a rabbit hole as they search for the best fit, even in the case of minor purchases or upgrades. Instead of diving blind, so to speak, the purchasers find that the added curation and GSA oversight make a few inherent and explicit assurances:

A better fit. Not every tool will fit every job, naturally, but a smaller list and expert oversight help agencies narrow their focus from the first step, guiding them to a solution that suits both needs and budget. Otherwise, they might feel compelled to spend scarce funds hiring consultants to advise them in making a technological upgrade.

Broader reach. The GSA partners with everything from startups to multinational giants. This makes it easier for agencies to obtain precisely the tool they want, and means that budgetary and sourcing concerns become less of an existential threat to the project.

Pre-negotiated pricing. The GSA has already reached what it feels is a fair market value for the products and services solid through its schedules and programs. The rules explicitly state that agencies are welcome to seek further discounts, although a vendor may understandably be reluctant if the negotiated GSA price is already less than it normally charges.The GSA has already determined a fair market value for the products and services solid through its schedules and programs. Click To Tweet

Vendors connected to a GSA schedule offer a seemingly endless number of products, services, and solutions. The variety of options gives agencies in search of an upgrade greater freedom in designing a technical infrastructure that works for them while still offering the structure, guidance, and support that stand atop the GSA’s list of major benefits.

Agencies interested in the Cooperative Purchasing Program and similar offerings put forth by the GSA are urged to check the GSA website for more information: https://www.gsa.gov/buying-selling/purchasing-programs/gsa-schedules/schedule-buyers/state-and-local-governments

Conclusion

Administrations come and go, each with their own impact on the federal government’s funding philosophy. But it is difficult to imagine a world where the omnipresent public safety grant ceases to exist. They may have looked different prior to Nixon–and particularly Reagan–but they’re still responsible for pumping billions of dollars into better public safety performance and new initiatives.Agencies interested in the Cooperative Purchasing Program and other GSA offerings can go to the GSA website for more information. Click To Tweet

As valuable as grants can be, programs like the GSA’s provide an excellent supplement to the traditional research-request-repeat model that modern grants follow. It is a service with few political overtones, making it easy to support; it is structured to provide freedom, guidance, and regulation in a different ratio, working as more of a guiding hand than a strict set of mandates; and it allows smaller government organizations to tap into a unique area of federal oversight that may otherwise be inaccessible. Moreover, it manages to do so without cumbersome rules and middleman organizations reducing the efficiency of the process. As the availability of the GSA program becomes more well known, it is likely that the $800 million state and local governments spend per year now is only a start—and that the model’s many advantages could prove foundational for assistance programs to come.