Government Could Become Nation’s Shrewdest Consumer

Gerald P. Carmen, Reagan’s administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA) is a bit nervous these days. You see, I have praised him publicly and his Reaganite friends won’t let him forget that.

But as head of the country’s biggest consumer buying operation, he deserves praise and wider notice for the way he is using GSA’s buying power to help the rest of America’s consumers.
Carmen’s process is logical but such logic managed to escape most of his predecessors. He sees GSA buying everything from light bulbs to office equipment, from telephone service to building maintenance and cleaning materials, from automobiles to paint. He also knows that GSA has a hand, because of its many product standards and its regulation of government acquisitions, over the rest of the government’s total annual buying of nearly $160 billion. All this spells diverse purchasing know-how and leverage. Carmen’s question: how can this benefit not just the government’s performance but also, indirectly, consumers everywhere?

In a recent Washington address before the Public Citizen Forum, he emphasized this mission: “to use the leverage we have as a large consumer to obtain the best possible products at the lowest possible prices; to develop, test and evaluate new standards; and to use our buying power in a way which may stimulate improved technology, safety and product quality for the nation as a whole.”

The former small businessman from New Hampshire likes to be specific. Beginning in 1982, while buying vehicles for GSA’s 84,000 vehicle fleet, he started nudging manufacturers, who want the government’s business, to equip these cars with high-mount stop lamps, bumpers and increased damage resistance, superior safety windshields and soon airbag crash protection systems.

When a little consumer asks, big car companies can ignore. When a big consumer–GSA–asks, it is harder to ignore. However, it takes persistence for any GSA chief to face down recalcitrant corporate sellers unwilling to admit they can produce a better product than what they have been selling to people.

General Motors, for example, is opposed to GSA’s specification to buy five thousand 1985 model cars with airbags. Ford Motor Company is willing to supply these air bags. Carmen knows he has struck a nerve. If he and Ford prevail, the momentum behind the most important motorist lifesaver in cars since brakes will begin again, in spite of GM’s blocking power over Congress and the Department of Transportation. Such is the leverage of GSA procurement.

Before Carmen came to GSA, the agency was a leader in developing fire safety standards for high-rise buildings. This work led to upgrading many of the nation’s local fire codes. Not one fire-related fatality has occurred within the 6500 buildings under GSA jurisdiction.

To conserve energy, GSA has testing various technologies — information consumers could use, along with state and local governments. Despite the age of some government buildings, energy usage is about 20 to 25% lower than that for comparable space in the private sector, according to Carmen. A new partially solarized federal building in New Hampshire uses about half the energy of a standard federal office building.

GSA has intervened as a consumer in telephone, electric and gas rate proceedings, achieving savings which benefited other consumers potentially affected by the utility company increases that were requested.

Relaying the benefits of what the mighty GSA consumer knows and does to millions of individual and institutional consumers is just in its infancy. Not one percent of GSA’s potential in this regard has been tapped. The agency knows what companies meet what standards, what products are better than others, what technologies are ready but not available at market, and what savings can be achieved by City Halls and State Houses if the latter governments only cared enough.

Carmen, who is leaving his job on February 29th, showed that he cared a little — which is a lot by GSA’s historical standards. What’s more he was the first to articulate so graphically GSA’s leverage for consumer betterment. If his purchase of Ford cars with airbags goes through, he can look forward to adding a lustrous chapter of preserving life on the highway through imaginative uses of GSA’s buying power. (For a copy of his unpublicized speech, write to Gerald Carmen, General Services Administration, Washington, DC).

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