Agencies seek new sources of vendor info

Enter "scanners " "color" and "desktop" into your favorite Internet search engine and you will get 1 000 hits maybe more. This is part of market research post-Brooks Act style but federal agencies are learning that there is more to searching out the latest commercial technologies than surfing vendors' on-line catalogs.

New mandates for agencies to buy commercial products - and new freedom to make their purchases more like private companies do - mean buyers need new strategies for gathering and interpreting vendor and product data. That means learning how to choose suppliers the way the private sector does with a greater reliance on commercially available information sources.

Since the passage of the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act more than two years ago government buyers have been turning more than ever to a variety of resources that can be broadly classified as market research material. The data they seek goes beyond the technical information that agencies have traditionally sought from requests for information and draft requests for proposals it now includes news about the financial strength of suppliers the range of prices they might pay and how well vendors will treat them as customers.

Sources of such data include market research firms such as Dun & Bradstreet The Gartner Group and IDC Government. Agency use of these firms is emerging at least anecdotally as the most identifiable new trend in how agencies get information about the market according to government and industry sources.

"It's our practice to gain access to every relevant reputable source of information we can find " said David Phillips a procurement executive with the Treasury Department. "At this point I think you have to relate to how business does business. You have to know channels of distribution operations that have an effect on prices and how you conduct your own business."

Government policy offices and private companies have responded by offering new training programs World Wide Web si tes and consulting services. "It's not just picking up a catalog and leafing through it " said Donna Ireton director of contracts with Advanced Systems Development Arlington Va. who teaches courses about how to use commercial business practices through her company and through the National Contract Management Association.

William Mounts director for international and commercial systems acquisition for the Defense Department said DOD developed its Commercial Advocates Forum a Web-based collection of acquisition information that includes pointers to commercial product data to get military buyers "talking the same language" as their industry counterparts. Soon the forum will offer a search tool that will let users collect the information in an electronic "shopping cart."

But Mounts said he thinks that in time agencies will begin to outsource more of their research to firms that evaluate technology or analyze the commercial marketplace for private-sector buyers. Market research specialists agreed.

"[Agencies] don't have the staff and they don't have the expertise" to thoroughly research current and emerging technologies said George Haynes research director with IDC Government a technology research firm in Falls Church Va. IDC Government and Federal Computer Week are separate subsidiaries of International Data Group Framingham Mass.

Haynes said that in the past year he has seen an increase in demand for his company's services from federal agencies. Research firms he said tend to be less expensive and work more quickly than the integrators or consulting firms that agencies traditionally hired to evaluate their systems needs which suits today's tight budgets.

Research firms are starting to tailor their services for federal customers. Chris Palen vice president for strategic government services with Dun & Bradstreet said his company is offering to evaluate vendors' records on government contracts for its federal customers to help them comply with new policies to consider suppliers' past performance.

Meanwhile Gartner is providing advice to agency information resource managers and chief information officers about how to explain information technology to "nontechies " said George Lindamood vice president and research director for government information technology services at the company.

"Typically decisions in which technologies play a major role have to be made outside a technology environment " Lindamood said.

"There is a great deal of material that Gartner has from the private sector that can be leveraged but there is also part of government that cannot does not never will run like a business and that is part of the challenge that we are now stepping up to " Lindamood said.

Robert Guerra a private consultant said agencies need to be careful not to rely too heavily on the reports of research firms because data prepared for the commercial market will not necessarily inform agencies about how a vendor would be able to meet government-unique needs such as the worldwide delivery requirements of DOD. Meanwhile Bob Dornan senior vice president of Federal Sources Inc. a McLean Va.-based research firm that tracks federal technology buying trends said suppliers worry that data collected about them by outsiders will not always be accurate.

"I don't think they should look for us to make the decision for them " Dun & Bradstreet's Palen said. "It should be part of their total research on making a decision."

Rick Merendini the technical director with the Army Communications-Electronics Command's Acquisition Center Washington Operations Office said that is the role research services play in his organization today. "I'm a prolific reader " he said adding that he reads more than a dozen magazines and trade journals and collects information from vendors and their customers. "What we use the research services for [is] mostly to authenticate that various leading-edge products that supposedly are available or are imminently available are indeed coming out in time for the solicitation and that they work.

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