Reverse IT fair earns kudos

In the Great Hall of the Department of Health and Human Services' headquarters last week, the sound of a ringing cowbell signaled a sort of industry musical chairs.

Every 15 minutes for about six hours, department officials met with vendors at HHS' first information technology opportunity fair. The fair, dubbed a "reverse IT fair," was a twist on an old theme and has been hailed as a success by both sides, bringing together the right people for the right projects.

"They've got a million vendors out there trying to talk to them," said Conrad Carpenter, head of business development at Integrated Management Services Inc. "They have a problem trying to deal with that, just like we have a problem trying to get to them."

Rather than asking companies to set up booths presenting their solutions, representatives from several HHS components brought their key IT staff to the table for the vendors to discuss their needs and opportunities. The idea was to strengthen the partnerships between government and industry and allow companies to be better prepared to provide services to agencies.

Carpenter said he was able to meet with HHS chief information officer Melissa Chapman by registering online before registration filled up. "That was lucky for me," he said.

Reed Phillips, a consultant and former Commerce Department CIO, said the idea was likely to catch on governmentwide. "I know there are representatives from other agencies here," he said. "Internally, I understand the CIOs all embrace this. I think other agencies will take a page from the HHS book and do the same thing."

Several agencies have events, particularly for small businesses, featuring vendors, but they typically don't include one-on-one meetings with top agency officials.

After HHS posted the event on its Web site, vendors flocked to sign up for meetings. Although a second fair is scheduled for February 2004, some vendors want more.

"There aren't enough of these when they have to shut off the registration period," said Michael Strotz, spokesman for Washington, D.C.-based Celerus Networks.

Strotz said the fair gave small com- panies the same opportunity as larger companies to reach the top officials. "I'm getting as much face time as a senior contracting executive from" Computer Sciences Corp. or IBM Corp., he said.

The rapid-fire meetings gave officials the right amount of time to explain their priorities and hear pitches from the vendors, said Glenn Rogers, deputy CIO at the Food and Drug Administration. "If we did it the regular route, you're taking an hour out of your schedule to meet with a vendor," he said. "Here you're taking 15 minutes to make the point you want to make, and they make the point they want to make."

Jerry Fralick, deputy CIO for HHS' Administration for Children and Families, has been on both sides of the fence, first at the Justice Department and then as a consultant before his current position. Knowing how hard it can be to forge those relationships, Fralick came up with the idea for the fair about a year and a half ago.

"I was getting calls from vendors a lot," Fralick said. "I'm so busy, but I didn't want to say no to folks. And when I would respond to [requests for proposals], I would get kicked out of the door for noncompliance."

Chapman told vendors the fair was a chance for them to gain an understanding of the department's key initiatives and projects. "The more you know about HHS, the better you are to be aligned with the services you provide," she said. "We really do listen when you say, 'Hey, we can help you in this specific area.' "

It may just be a matter of time until other agencies sponsor similar fairs. Although he hasn't heard talk yet of setting up a such a fair at other agencies, Fralick said his colleagues at Justice have called it being a good idea. "I would love to see it at other agencies," he said. "I would even help people if they wanted to call me."

***

Setting priorities

During the Department of Health and Human Services' information technology fair, chief information officer Melissa Chapman outlined a few of the department's priorities:

* Completing a departmentwide IT consolidation.

* Creating a common e-mail system.

* Advancing the federal health architecture, beginning with health surveillance standards.

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