DLA-GSA partnership to manage federal supply classes spans history

By Colin Williams DLA Historian

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Former President Herbert Hoover led two commissions to analyze the efficiency of the federal government in post-World War II America. The first resulted in the creation of the General Services Administration in 1949; the second laid the foundation for the establishment of the Defense Supply Agency in 1961. While GSA consolidated property-related activities across the federal government, DSA combined the common supply functions of the Department of Defense. Because many items used by the military also have civilian applications, there have always been classes of supply that could be managed by both or either agency. Since DSA’s formation, the agency has been in constant communication with GSA over which organization is responsible for which items. Disagreements have been common but not fundamental to the core mission of either agency. 

Negotiations were forced in the beginning, and both GSA and DSA had territorial tendencies despite their common foundations. Responsible for providing all items of supply to the federal government except those specifically exempted from GSA control by the secretary of defense, GSA feared its span of control would shrink when Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara integrated common supply services under DSA. In turn, DSA feared it would suffer financially by transferring easily procured items to GSA. DSA’s first director, Lt. Gen. Andrew T. McNamara, wrote Secretary McNamara, “DSA, in a stock-funded situation, cannot survive as a useful supply management organization if its item range is restricted to slow and random military items. The high-turn and cash-producing items of a common-use and commercial-type would be continually migrating to GSA."

The DSA director need not have worried. Urged by President John F. Kennedy’s administration, both agencies agreed provisionally that “the management of all items used exclusively or principally in support of military missions will continue to be managed within the Department of Defense.” At the same time, they also agreed “that the General Services Administration will furnish to both Defense and Civil agencies supplies ... common to all government agencies,” and “where military considerations require it, similar items will be managed by both the Defense Supply Agency and the General Services Administration.” Formalized in December 1964, the agreement forced both agencies to accept their coexistence for the foreseeable future. DSA transferred all of its hand tools and paints to GSA and received several classes of supply in return.

Feeling they’d been rushed, neither GSA nor DSA liked the agreement. Although both organizations appointed representatives to a Material Management Review Committee to work on a standard address directory and other projects, they also proposed a significant change to the agreement. As it was, the document assigned 54 Federal Supply Classes to both GSA and DSA to manage. The MMRC distributed 52 of these FSCs, leaving the agencies with shared control of only two. The adjustment didn’t eliminate friction, but confined it to those two FSCs. The relationship improved as a result.

GSA showed its increased willingness to work with DSA in 1967 when it helped its sister organization study whether it should increase its support to other government agencies. The study found that DSA already worked with 49 federal entities outside DoD – only nine by formal agreement – but the support constituted only a small percent of its operations. According to the study, it would be both viable and economical for DSA to provide other agencies with fuel, probably economical to supply them with electronics, and uneconomical to sell them clothing and textiles. Growth was not one way. As stated by DSA’s supply operations directorate in 1975, “there has been a continuing effort ... to offer to GSA items which are considered to be so common-commercial in nature as to not require DoD management.” This effort resulted in DSA transferring 333 items in DSA-assigned FSC 6240, electric lamps, to GSA for integrated management. That same year, representatives from both organizations met to discuss the continued provision of supplies during national emergencies. At such times, it was agreed that the organizations would staff ad hoc committees with representatives who’d already worked together. A decision to rely on informal communication made sense only because leaders in both organizations had developed a good understanding of each other’s operations.

GSA-DLA cooperation continued throughout the 1970s, and in 1977 DSA was renamed the Defense Logistics Agency. A new round of negotiations re-examined the few items both organizations controlled. Army Lt. Gen. Woodrow W. Vaughan, director of DLA from 1976 to 1978, outlined the steps he wanted to follow to eliminate duplication. By organizing a steering group, negotiating with GSA, developing new requirements for the Defense Integrated Data System and referring policy issues to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, DLA came to an agreement with GSA representatives at the close of fiscal 1977. Of the items that had been under both organizations’ cognizance, only 150 remained. 

With four exceptions, the same division of material management continues today. The first exception occurred in 1988 when the president decided, per Executive Order 12626, to transfer the Defense National Stockpile Center from GSA to DLA. The second occurred in 1997 when GSA asked DLA’s Defense Automated Printing Service to cover its printing needs. The third exception occurred in 2006 when DLA took over the senior agency’s cataloging function. And in 2014, DLA assumed responsibility for all items in FSC 80 including paint, sealants and adhesives.

While DLA and GSA had a less than ideal working relationship in the early 1960s, time, complementary goals and experience working together improved relations by the late 1970s. Lines of property now transfer between the agencies with neither looking to increase its portfolio. Instead, decisions are made objectively, driven by the greatest good and least cost to the government. The partnership continues today as DLA and GSA review all 600-plus FSCs, which include over 6 million National Stock Numbered items, to ensure strategic tenets established in the 1970s are being effectively applied. President Hoover would have been proud.