Wage-determination software goes on-line

Before putting out a solicitation for a construction project or for other services the Army Corps of Engineers is required by law to contact the Labor Department for the minimum acceptable wages the Corps must pay for the services. This decades-old practice ensures that private-sector workers are not exploited by the government.

Until recently the requirement forced the Corps to build into its procurements at least a 60-day buffer to allow time for DOL to respond. In fiscal 1996 alone the Corps contracted more than $4 billion in business that was affected by this rule.

However the Corps working in conjunction with the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) developed the Corps of Engineers Automated Legal System (CEALS) a Web-based program that contracting officers use to electronically retrieve the same information themselves - but in a matter of seconds not months.

Last year the Corps opened the system up to the Defense Department's military commands and now is negotiating memorandums of understanding with DOD officials to open it up to the entire department.

"It is nothing short of revolutionary " said Greg Noonan a contractor industrial relations specialist for the Corps.

The way in which CEALS compresses the front end of the acquisition cycle for the Corps fits well with the broader push in government for streamlined procurement Noonan said. "This kind of system is an effective bridge between economic policies and acquisition reform " he said. In fact the project team is slated to receive a Hammer Award from the National Performance Review office.

The policy dates back to the Davis-Bacon Act which was established in 1931. This law called for government to set a minimum wage for construction services as a way to ensure that American workers were not exploited as part of a government contract. Congress passed a similar law in 1965 to cover all other forms of services including everything from mess hall and janitorial services to motor-pool services.

The so-called wage determinations are based on prevailing wage surveys DOL conducts and are tied to the wage levels found in different counties or regions of the country. Agencies are required to request wage information for every service contract they let.

"That was 1965 and clearly much has changed in the years since not the least of which is an increasing amount of service contracts and a shrinking of [government] resources to serve that end particularly the manpower to process the growing number of requests " Noonan said.

The Corps with its extensive reliance on service contracts decided to solve that problem with the first version of CEALS in 1995.

As part of subscription services NTIS converts DOL's wage-determination information into electronic form. The Corps stores that data in a searchable database which in the early rendition of CEALS end users could access through a dial-up service. The system was based on Dataware Technologies Inc.'s BRS/Search a full-text database that individually stores every word and provides a search engine.

In that first version the program was menu-driven like other bulletin board systems. The potential audience for CEALS grew dramatically last July when the Corps migrated the program to the Web using Dataware's NetAnswer product for Internet publishing.

With the new version the browser became the user interface for CEALS and the database was accessible to anyone with Internet access and appropriate access rights.

The Web-based version is easier to use than the menu-driven program said Patricia Vatter CEALS' project manager at the Corps. "We have fielded this system without any [technical] training whatsoever to more than 3 000 users " she said.

The Corps though did train users on policy-oriented issues associated with wage-determination requests. When training began on the new system last July hits on the CEALS Web site totaled about 400 per day. Now hits are up to 5 000 daily.

Dave Schubmehl product manager for NetAnswer at Dataware Cambridge Mass. said the advantage of the Web-based approach is that it does not require the Corps to distribute any kind of client software to give people access to information.

"People used to develop relatively complex applications " Schubmehl said. But with the Web the focus is on "relatively simple easy-to-use applications " he said.

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