NIH moves to make contract buying easy

Buying products and services from the National Institutes of Health would become easier for customers who use new online applications supplied through an NIH-supported World Wide Web site.

Customers would use the new electronic purchasing features which were scheduled to become available this month to get price quotes from vendors that hold contracts with NIH's Electronic Computer Store (ECS) ImageWorld and Chief Information Officer Solutions and Partners (CIO-SP) programs. In addition buyers could fill out and submit purchase orders directly to the vendor or to NIH depending on which contracts they are using.

NIH already conducts most transactions on its governmentwide contracts using e-mail but the agency has long planned to provide Web-based purchasing services. Many other agencies offer similar capabilities including NASA's Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement II program and the General Services Administration's Advantage program.

The system is an alternative to an electronic data interchange-based purchasing application that NIH proposed last year but that was rejected by its vendors. That system also would have used the Internet as its platform but would have required contractors to invest in EDI software.

"EDI is a difficult thing to utilize " said Deborah Gordon whom NIH hired to develop the Web application (www.nihcontracts.com). "It takes training and extra software. [Our system is] 100 percent Internet-based user-friendly and something that people can understand."

Gordon president of GCG Computers an ECS vendor built the Web pages under a separate consulting contract through her company San Destin Consulting Inc. said Elmer Sembly a special assistant to NIH associate director for administration Leamon Lee.

"I think it's the next step forward that NIH needs to make with its electronic store " said Tom Nixon vice president for sales and marketing with ECS vendor McBride & Associates Inc. Albuquerque N.M. "Like GSA they are trying to be progressive and trying to provide the end user with some value."

But Nixon said the service also poses some risks to vendors if customers use the new electronic catalog features to "mix and match" products from different vendors. "What we don't want to lose as a vendor community is the ability to [provide a] package and to add value to that packaging." As with other agency acquisition sites NIH customers will be able to search electronic "catalogs" for the products they want and compare prices. But Gordon said the software she has developed for the so-called "Fast Quote" application is more flexible than that used by other agencies.

For example she said Fast Quote uses "intelligent agent" technology employed by Web search engines such as Excite to search vendor Web pages directly for the latest product and price information rather than collect this information in a centrally managed database as other sites do. She said this approach would enable customers to pick up the most recent changes to NIH contracts.

"We're going into each page from midnight [to] 4:00 [a.m.] and seeing if anything different has been done to it " Gordon said.

Bob Lewin an analyst with Dataquest said many organizations are using intelligent agent software to keep up with rapidly changing distributed information. "I think just about any company that's involved in providing the service of extraction of information either has or will have this type of capability " he said.

Unisys Corp. a CIO-SP contractor recently launched an electronic purchasing system that uses similar technology. The company's Select IT service searches the catalogs of Unisys' major suppliers for the best price on the equipment its customers want said Lee Myers general manager for the service.

Gordon said NIH contractors also will be able to use the Web site to file sales reports. Sembly said the new service will help NIH manage its contracts more easily too by providing a more streamlined way to collect statistics.

"It will give us an idea of the activity that's going on " Sembly said. "We get feedback on who is using the page where we need to focus in on more and also gauge what type and levels of orders are coming in."

Sembly said NIH is developing its own Web site for its contracts the addresses of which will have the suffix ".gov " but Gordon was able to get the purchasing applications running on her site more quickly. For now the NIH page nitaac.nih.gov will primarily provide administrative information about the contracts but "our people and her people will jointly develop [the pages] to get the best of both worlds " Sembly said.

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