OFPP plan would offer one source for agency data

The Office of Federal Procurement Policy wants agencies to link their acquisition home pages to ARNet, a World Wide Web clearinghouse for information on federal purchasing reform, and tie these sites together through a text retrieval system that would allow vendor searches.

The service would offer vendors access to the acquisition plans of hundreds of government buying offices through a single site for the cost of Internet access.

Steven Kelman, administrator of OFPP, said agencies would use their Web pages to post presolicitation documents such as requests for information and draft requests for proposals, giving contractors "a better idea and a heads up about what the government is thinking."

Ella Schiralli, director of government relations with the Electronic Industries Association, said such an application would be of particular benefit to vendors who need to become more familiar with the federal marketplace.

Chuck Wheeler, vice president of Federal Sources Inc., said a central Web site for procurement information would save firms the hassle of having to search multiple Internet sites and bulletin boards.

The effort is in its earliest stages. Kelman plans to send a letter to agencies soon asking them to provide ARNet, located at http://www-far.npr.gov, with links to their procurement Web sites.

The government will have to then acquire a search engine capable of retrieving data from multiple agency servers.

So far there is no firm date for completion of the project.

The government has no plans to use ARNet to conduct the formal business transactions agencies are required to automate using the Federal Acquisition Computer Network (FACNET). But federal officials, vendors and acquisition analysts said ARNet would supplement the government's electronic commerce initiatives.

Neil Lamb, OFPP associate administrator for EC, said agencies cannot yet use the Internet to transact business because they cannot guarantee the security of proprietary proposal information or financial exchanges. Eventually, however, the Internet could "be part of FACNET."

"I personally think the two are going to merge in the future," said Jim Bradford, a procurement analyst with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center who has developed a Web site that is a model for OFPP's governmentwide effort. "There will be this network of networks in the future that will enable you to do [electronic data interchange] and non-EDI business over the Internet."

The Internet Engineering Task Force, a voluntary standards-setting body for Internet users, has developed specifications for conducting EDI transactions using electronic mail. A variety of business groups, such as the automobile industry, is exploring ways to conduct business using the Internet for day-to-day business transactions.

"Eventually, the FACNET architecture will have to include not only EDI transaction sets but also Web pages and electronic mail," Wheeler said.

NASA Jumps on the Jumpstation

NASA has a Web site, the Federal Acquisition Jumpstation, that has a link to ARNet through which vendors can search for synopses of acquisitions throughout the agency using a search engine called Harvest, developed under a federal grant by the University of Colorado. It retrieves data about procurements posted on servers at NASA centers throughout the country and collects them into a single searchable database.

When the agency issues solicitations, it posts its RFPs on the Web. Bradford said the Web site is a way for NASA to easily disseminate information about its purchasing plans that it cannot distribute using FACNET.

FACNET is designed for conducting only limited types of transactions, mainly involving small purchases, such as ordering parts or other easily described products. The EDI standards upon which FACNET is based are not meant to accommodate large, nonstandard files such as drawings, tables and text descriptions of agency requirements that are common to solicitation documents for high-dollar buys.

"EDI efforts to date address simple, routine transactions," Bradford said. "These transactions we're talking about are not things you repeat on a daily basis."

Through its Jumpstation, NASA also provides links to many other federal agency acquisition Web pages, from the Defense Department to the Patent and Trademark Office. Bradford said he is working on ways vendors can use the Harvest search engine to search those databases as well.

But making those links, Bradford said, would require agencies across the government to agree on some standards, such as a file structure, that would permit searches across multiple servers. "We're going into territory that's never been ventured into before," he added.

Lamb said that if NASA develops a search application that can be used governmentwide, it may be adopted for ARNet, although OFPP would also explore other options.

Users could also use commercial Web search tools available with Web browser software to search for what they want, he said.

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