Bill calls for strategic plan, accounting of transactions

Congress this month sent President Clinton a bill that would impose a new requirement on agencies to report progress in using electronic commerce for procurement. Nestled in the 1998 Defense authorization bill which eliminates mandatory use of the Federal Acquisition Computer Network (FACNET) and allows agencies to use any EC product and service is language that also would require the Office of Federal Procurement Policy for the first time to develop a new governmentwide strategic plan for how EC would be used in government procurement. The plan would be due March 1 1998.

"What comes out of this [bill] will drive the broader picture of EC in the government " said Tony Trenkle co-chairman of the General Services Administration's Electronic Commerce Acquisition Program Management Office who will help draft the strategic plan. "Now that we know that the statutory requirements of FACNET are gone it makes it easier to do an overall strategic plan for EC."

In 1994 Congress mandated the use of FACNET to establish a firm standard for agencies and vendors doing business electronically. However two General Accounting Office reports released this year found that FACNET is appropriate only for certain types of contracts and that agencies seldom used it for procurements because of frequent network interruptions and lost data among other reasons.

After OFPP submits its strategic plan March 1 the bill would require OFPP to report every year for the following five years how agencies are meeting the details laid out in the plan.

Volume and Value

Beginning in March 1999 agencies will have to provide information on the volume and dollar value of transactions conducted using EC during the previous year. Each agency also will have to designate an EC program manager who will report to the senior procurement executive to ensure the use of EC in that agency.

Some agencies such as NASA which was one of the early adopters of Internet-based EC already keep track of their EC usage but the information is not collected on a governmentwide basis in any unified way. One challenge said Ken Stepka a procurement analyst at NASA will be tracking the volume and value of transactions done over the Internet.

The new legislation will give agencies more flexibility in the type of EC technology they use which will in turn encourage the use of the EC in the government observers said.

"We've broadened the scope of EC so there is no one mandate to say this is how to do business " said Paul Grant co-chairman of GSA's EC acquisition office. "[Electronic data interchange] electronic catalogs credit cards the World Wide Web - these are all tools to do EC. But there still needs to be a single face to industry so we're dealing with our trading partners in a unified way."

Part of OFPP's task mandated in the legislation will be to define what this single face will be. Some efforts are under way to develop the single-face concept. NASA the Defense Information Systems Agency and GSA among other agencies as well as CommerceNet an EC nonprofit research and development organization are involved in a pilot to demonstrate how electronic catalogs such as GSA Advantage can interoperate.

"We're spending tens of millions of dollars on catalogs and a great deal is spent on extracting data in different formats " said Ron Parsons director of CommerceNet Northeast. "We have to let people get information in a standard way."

One Internet-based alternative to FACNET was launched last month by EC Web Technologies Inc. Ecweb.net is a single site that lets vendors search and bid on agency solicitations without having to invest in an expensive EDI infrastructure. The company piloted the program with the Procurement Service Center Division at the Department of Health and Human Services.

For agencies such as NASA the flexibility to choose any EC product and service would be welcome. "We'd rather see EC as a toolbox where we pick the tool based on the procurement we're trying to complete " Stepka said.

The legislation also would allow agencies to use a "widespread electronic public notice" to publicize a solicitation that fits within the simplified acquisition threshold.

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