Government Purchase Cards:

Opportunities Exist to Leverage Buying Power

GAO-16-526: Published: May 19, 2016. Publicly Released: Jun 20, 2016.

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makm@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

The agencies in GAO's review—the Departments of Defense (DOD), Veterans Affairs (VA), the Interior (Interior), Homeland Security, and Energy (Energy), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—have made varied use of purchase card data, and additional opportunities exist to negotiate discounts and leverage buying power. As the chart below shows, spending with government purchase cards represents billions of dollars each year.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidance that prescribes policies for agencies on how to manage their purchase card programs (1) requires agency officials to incorporate purchase card data into strategic sourcing analysis and (2) recommends that agencies review and analyze purchase card spending patterns for opportunities to negotiate discounts, improve buying processes, and leverage buying power. All the agencies in GAO's review incorporated purchase card data into overall spend analysis to support strategic sourcing efforts as required by OMB, but officials noted challenges that impede review of purchase card data. For example, purchase card data do not always include enough specificity to identify particular commodities to target for savings. Despite these challenges, four of the six agencies GAO reviewed took additional steps to independently analyze purchase card spending patterns as recommended by OMB. Two agencies—EPA and Interior—identified opportunities for savings through such analysis, demonstrating that savings can be found. However, Energy and certain DOD components, such as the Air Force and Navy, did not perform analysis of purchase card spending. Without more focused efforts, these agencies may be missing opportunities to find cost savings.

GAO also found instances where regional VA offices were successful in identifying opportunities for local or agency-wide savings on items procured with purchase cards. For example, one office recognized an opportunity for savings when purchasing wheelchair ramps for disabled veterans, resulting in savings of $1.1 million and faster delivery. Federal internal controls state that management should communicate the necessary information to achieve objectives. Given the examples GAO found, developing guidance and sharing information may help agencies identify opportunities to leverage buying power with purchase cards.

Why GAO Did This Study

The purchase card program was designed to streamline relatively small dollar value acquisitions of goods and services. In fiscal year 2015, the government spent approximately $19 billion using purchase cards.

GAO was asked to review whether agencies are effectively leveraging their buying power when using purchase cards. This report assesses the extent to which selected (1) agencies analyze purchase card data to identify opportunities to leverage buying power agency-wide and (2) purchase cardholders seek opportunities to achieve cost savings when using purchase cards.

GAO analyzed data from the three banks that work with the six selected agencies—selected in part on varying levels of purchase card spend volume—to manage their purchase card programs. GAO evaluated policies, reviewed strategic sourcing efforts related to purchase cards, and interviewed officials. GAO also interviewed officials from the General Services Administration who manage the government's purchase card contracts, and interviewed selected cardholders at the two agencies with the highest purchase card spend.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that Energy analyze purchase card data and DOD ensure its components do the same. GAO also recommends that each agency develop guidance to encourage local officials to examine purchase card spend patterns and share this information. Four agencies concurred, Interior partially concurred, and EPA did not comment.

For more information, contact Marie A. Mak at (202) 512-4841 or makm@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In providing comments on this report, the agency concurred with this recommendation and stated that the department will issue guidance to help ensure that components make reasonable efforts to analyze component-level purchase card spend patterns to identify areas of potential savings. In September 2016, DOD issued guidance asking its components to analyze purchase card spend for potential cost savings and to consider broader application of cost savings opportunities across the department. We will continue to follow up with DOD to determine what steps have been taken to communicate findings.

    Recommendation: To help identify opportunities for cost savings, the Secretary of the Department of Defense should direct the Office of Defense Procurement and Acquisition Policy to issue guidance or instruction to help ensure that components make reasonable efforts to analyze component-level purchase card spend patterns to identify areas for possible savings.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: The agency concurred with this recommendation and has begun implementation of a Spend Analytics Database to support capture and analysis of data on agency-wide spending patterns. The department has compiled data and begun testing the new databases to determine if useful reports can be generated to assist agency-wide purchase card spending analysis.

    Recommendation: To help identify opportunities for cost savings, the Secretary of the Department of Energy should take reasonable steps to regularly analyze agency-wide purchase card spend patterns to identify areas such as high-use vendors or frequently purchased commodities for further analysis.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: The department concurred with this recommendation and updated its purchase card manual November 2016 to encourage components to perform additional spend analysis for the identification of strategic sourcing opportunities, but it is unclear how results of analysis will be communicated for broader application across the agency. The department is also working with industry partners to increase the level of shared data for purchase card transactions and will develop a plan to communicate these data across the agency to support information sharing and increases strategic sourcing opportunities.

    Recommendation: To ensure that good practices are shared within agencies, the Secretaries of Defense, Veterans Affairs, the Interior, Homeland Security, and Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency should develop guidance that encourages local officials to examine purchase card spend patterns to identify opportunities to obtain savings and to share information on such efforts. Where applicable, we further recommend that these agencies determine the feasibility for broader application of these efforts across the agency or organization.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In providing comments on this report, the agency concurred with this recommendation and stated that guidance that encourages local examination of purchase card spend patterns to identify opportunities for cost savings will be developed. In September 2016, DOD issued guidance asking its components to analyze purchase card spend for potential cost savings and to consider broader application of cost savings opportunities across the department. The guidance also asked components and services to report the results of these analysis to purchase card management officials. We will continue to follow up with DOD to determine what steps have been taken to communicate findings.

    Recommendation: To ensure that good practices are shared within agencies, the Secretaries of Defense, Veterans Affairs, the Interior, Homeland Security, and Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency should develop guidance that encourages local officials to examine purchase card spend patterns to identify opportunities to obtain savings and to share information on such efforts. Where applicable, we further recommend that these agencies determine the feasibility for broader application of these efforts across the agency or organization.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: The agency concurred with this recommendation and will update its guidance, policy, and procedures to encourage local officials to examine purchase card spend patterns to identify opportunities to obtains savings and to share information on such efforts. Revisions were under review by the department in August 2017.

    Recommendation: To ensure that good practices are shared within agencies, the Secretaries of Defense, Veterans Affairs, the Interior, Homeland Security, and Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency should develop guidance that encourages local officials to examine purchase card spend patterns to identify opportunities to obtain savings and to share information on such efforts. Where applicable, we further recommend that these agencies determine the feasibility for broader application of these efforts across the agency or organization.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: The department partially concurred with this recommendation, agreeing that it would be useful to perform analysis of purchase card spend patterns to identify opportunities for savings. However, rather than issue guidance, it will encourage its bureau charge card leads to use available tools to extract and share data with buyers and program managers. The department will also encourage bureau program and acquisition managers to share spend data across regional boundaries to identify potential opportunities to negotiate lower costs for commonly used items.

    Recommendation: To ensure that good practices are shared within agencies, the Secretaries of Defense, Veterans Affairs, the Interior, Homeland Security, and Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency should develop guidance that encourages local officials to examine purchase card spend patterns to identify opportunities to obtain savings and to share information on such efforts. Where applicable, we further recommend that these agencies determine the feasibility for broader application of these efforts across the agency or organization.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: The department concurred with our recommendation and plans to develop guidance and implement strategic sourcing for all purchasing requirements to include purchase cards. Additionally the department will update purchase card policy to encourage agency officials to analyze spend patterns to identify opportunities to obtain savings and share information on these efforts. Further, the agency has developed a quarterly report to identify the top merchants receiving payment through the purchase card program in order to assist officials in identifying opportunities for strategic sourcing.

    Recommendation: To ensure that good practices are shared within agencies, the Secretaries of Defense, Veterans Affairs, the Interior, Homeland Security, and Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency should develop guidance that encourages local officials to examine purchase card spend patterns to identify opportunities to obtain savings and to share information on such efforts. Where applicable, we further recommend that these agencies determine the feasibility for broader application of these efforts across the agency or organization.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: The agency provided comments indicating its concurrence with this recommendation, noting that it looks forward to opportunities to benchmark with other agencies and share information on approaches taken to identify opportunities which led to positive strategic sourcing outcomes.

    Recommendation: To ensure that good practices are shared within agencies, the Secretaries of Defense, Veterans Affairs, the Interior, Homeland Security, and Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency should develop guidance that encourages local officials to examine purchase card spend patterns to identify opportunities to obtain savings and to share information on such efforts. Where applicable, we further recommend that these agencies determine the feasibility for broader application of these efforts across the agency or organization.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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