Quality Standards Update

by Paul Scicchitano

It's clear that the old system has proven to be inefficient for
contractors, purchasers and taxpayers.

No More $400 Hammers?

You're sitting in a crowded restaurant and you happen to overhear a story about a $400 hammer. Can you guess who the shrewd buyer might be?

Before you can say, "Waiter, there's a hair on my plate," you've probably reached the not-so-startling conclusion that Uncle Sam is up to his usual antics with your tax money. However, the federal government may finally be shedding its image as a spendthrift.

A group of federal agency and industry representatives, which formed in 1994 to promote a governmentwide purchasing standard, appears to be gaining high-level support for the next best thing: a single quality system approval for government contractors based on ISO 9000. Anyone who has ever worked for a company that sells to more than one federal agency will tell you that the bureaucracy is mind-boggling and full of redundancy, not only from one agency to another, but sometimes even within the same agency. These problems are even more apparent with respect to quality system requirements.

Last year, the Government/Industry Quality Liaison Panel coordinated its efforts with high-level management officials representing 12 federal agencies, including some of the government's largest purchasers, creating a Memorandum of Understanding that states their intention to develop a single quality system approval for contractors.

The participating agencies see the wisdom in abolishing contract-unique requirements for quality systems in favor of a single, facility-specific approval that can be accepted by multiple agencies.

This doesn't sound like rocket science. But in reality, many agencies have been, and will continue to be, hesitant to rely on supplier evaluations from their brother agencies. Cynics might say they're protecting their turf and guaranteeing continued government paychecks for thousands of unnecessary personnel. The not-so-cynical would say each agency is only interested in ensuring the best possible purchases to meet its own unique needs.

Regardless, it's increasingly clear that the old system has proven to be inefficient for both contractors and purchasers.

GIQLP representatives recently met with the Interagency Council on Standards Policy, whose authority to write government procurement policy comes from the Office of Management and Budget. At the meeting, representatives discussed the promotion of GIQLP objectives throughout the federal government. Government officials say it is likely that the ICSP will encourage all federal agencies to participate in the GIQLP's efforts. Such a move would be consistent with recent legislation directing all U.S. government agencies to use voluntary consensus standards like ISO 9000 and ISO 14000.
Moreover, under the amendment to the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act of 1995, federal agencies that don't use such standards will be required to explain why in writing. The GIQLP was honored by Vice President Al Gore last November for its work. In presenting Gore's prestigious Hammer Award to the GIQLP, Robert Stone, director of the vice president's committee to reinvent government, estimated that the group's efforts could save the federal government $1 billion a year in reduced operating expenses.

The savings are expected to come from reduced administration costs and less government monitoring of contractors. The award recognized what officials described as revolutionary, next-generation approaches taken by the GIQLP to streamline government agency acquisition processes and ensure quality products.

At the presentation, officials said the GIQLP initiative was the first time such a diverse group of government and industry representatives had come together to pursue common goals. I'd go a step further and say it has been long overdue. The initiative has support from the Electronic Industries Association, the Aerospace Industry Association and the National Security Industrial Association.

With certain notable exceptions, the fact that the GIQLP is opting to use ISO 9000-based requirements doesn't mean that third-party registrations to ISO 9000 will be accepted by government agencies. NASA has been a leader in experimenting with third-party registration. But, frankly, the jury is still out and may be for some time.

One thing is certain. These government agency representatives should be commended for challenging the status quo. Only through innovation can the government move beyond the age of the gilded hammer and into the age of common sense.

About the author
Paul Scicchitano is managing editor of Quality Systems Update, an ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 news and information service by Irwin Professional Publishing, 11150 Main St., Suite 403, Fairfax, VA 22030-5066. Telephone (703) 591-9008, fax (703) 591-0971 or e-mail isoeditor@ aol.com.