GSA working out e-Buy kinks

Vendors push for more information on bidding process

GSA e-Buy

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Federal agencies are using the General Services Administration's new e-Buy acquisition portal, but industry is shying away — and it can't all be blamed on system limitations, experts say.

In its first four months, agencies have posted more than 2,300 requests for quotations on the portal, according to Tim Dempsey, a supply systems analyst with the e-Buy program who was speaking Dec. 3 at a conference sponsored by the Computing Technology Industry Association.

However, industry excitement over the system seems lower than expected, Dempsey said. About 48 percent of the posted RFQs have received no quotes from vendors, he said.

GSA's Federal Supply Service launched e-Buy in June primarily as a way for agencies to post RFQs for solutions from FSS schedule contracts. Agencies also can use the portal to receive quotes online from chosen vendors, streamlining the buying process.

Many in government and industry who are pushing for greater competition in government contracting are excited by the idea that all vendors, even those not picked by the agency, can view e-Buy requests. Angela Styles, administrator of the White House's Office of Federal Procurement Policy, has often cited the e-Buy tool as an example of an easy way to ensure competition.

One possible reason for low vendor turnout is that the e-Buy system does not enable vendors to see how many other companies have submitted quotes, conference attendees said. And with e-Buy RFQs open to hundreds and even thousands of potential bidders, many companies may not bid for fear of too much competition.

FSS officials are looking at options for making this information available to vendors, including whether to simply list the number of quotes submitted or to list all names of bidders, Dempsey said.

Industry is also pushing GSA to require agencies to notify everyone who submits quotes about the winning bid. Currently, vendors will often submit a quote and then never hear back from the agency. That has been a matter of concern for members of the Coalition for Government Procurement and a big reason vendors cite for not bidding, according to Larry Allen, executive director of the coalition.

"If that happens to you once or twice and you receive another electronic RFQ through e-Buy, you're just not going to respond," he said.

GSA cannot issue a requirement such as that, but FSS officials are interested in figuring out how to "close the loop" and make agencies complete the entire acquisition process on e-Buy, said Patricia Mead, deputy assistant commissioner of FSS' Office of Acquisition.

However, the system is not the only problem. Agencies have not yet learned to draft an effective statement of work, officials said. Until agencies learn how to clearly ask for what they need, it will not matter how efficient the procurement system is, government and industry officials agree.

"The contractors' No. 1 complaint with the RFQs posted on e-Buy is that it's almost impossible to figure out what the customer is looking for," Allen said.

Like any other performance-based contract, every RFQ for services posted on e-Buy requires a statement of work. Agency contracting officers still aren't very good at writing these documents, Dempsey said.

GSA is working with the Federal Acquisition Institute to develop an in-depth course to teach acquisition personnel how to handle performance-based contracts, Mead said.

The federal acquisition workforce still needs a lot of training to learn how to use all of the acquisition reform measures that were put in place in the mid-1990s, according to Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's Technology and Procurement Policy Subcommittee.

Some training can be done through existing means, but a push may be applied by the Services Acquisition Reform Act that Davis said he plans to re-introduce in the new Congress.

GSA plans to hold several e-Buy user forums in late January 2003 to talk to agency and vendor representatives about what is and isn't working in the system, Dempsey said.

***

What is e-Buy?

The General Services Administration's e-Buy procurement tool enables agencies to issue requests for quotations online for any service or product offered on the Federal Supply Service schedule contracts. The tool is intended to streamline services acquisition off the FSS schedules and increase competition.

An agency posts the RFQ, including a statement of work and deadline for offers, and picks vendors to directly receive that request. However, every vendor listed in the product or service area designated by the agency can view the request through GSA's Vendor Support Center and submit quotes.

NEXT STORY: Vendors ready to vie for HITS

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