Educating the sellers

In its own small way, the Department of Health and Human Services could help other federal agencies think about new ways to foster productive exchanges with information technology vendors.

Next month, HHS plans to stage a "reverse IT fair," where vendors will be invited to peruse exhibits about current and future agency projects. It's an interesting twist on the typical technology fair, in which vendors set up booths and pitch their wares to agency officials walking the floor.

One approach makes as much sense as the other. Agency employees attend IT fairs and commercial trade shows because they need to learn about what is available in the market. Like anyone making a big-ticket purchase, they want to be educated consumers.

Equally important is an educated seller, which HHS recognizes. A given agency could entertain ideas from a virtually unlimited number of vendors and wait for one that resonates. But no one has that kind of time. If vendors know what problems agency officials want to solve, they can focus their sales pitches, or just save their breath. Clear priorities narrow the field.

The real payoff, though, comes when information becomes a source of inspiration. Technology companies make money by solving problems. Given enough information, they sometimes have an uncanny ability to see solutions that agencies might not have recognized on their own. The reverse IT fair could be a new venue for that type of inspiration.

Of course, when it occurs, the fair itself may not seem so revolutionary. It is, after all, just one event staged by one agency. But it should urge other agencies to think about how well they communicate with industry vendors.

The Bush administration has made it clear that it intends for industry to take a more active role in government services. If this is the case, it is in everyone's best interest for the federal government to take a more active role in initiating an exchange of information. HHS is leading by example.

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