Two reports urge feds and industry to cooperate on EC

A pair of recently released documents on electronic commerce provide agencies with a road map to speed up the rate at which EC is used in government.

In a strategic plan sent to Congress this month, the Office of Management and Budget recommended that by 2001 all federal agencies use commercial off-the-shelf EC products to conduct end-to-end transactions so that doing business with the government becomes easier and faster.

The plan, "Electronic Commerce for Buyers and Sellers: A Strategic Plan for Electronic Federal Purchasing and Payment," which was drafted by the Electronic Processes Initiatives Committee (EPIC) of the President's Management Council, was developed in response to a requirement in the Defense Department's 1998 Reauthorization Act.

Meanwhile, the Industry Advisory Council, at the request of EPIC's Buying and Paying Task Force, released a report recommending the government use open standards for EC that will support a single face to industry and ensure interoperability.

Although the strategic plan represents the government assessment and the IAC report, called "Government and Industry: Doing Business Together Electronically," which represents industry recommendations, the two encourage the widespread use of EC based on standards and government-industry cooperation.

''The First Building Block''

Both plans reflect the government's shift in broadening the definition of EC and allowing agencies to choose the best technology for their needs, said Tony Trenkle, co-chairman of the General Services Administration's EC Program Management Office and who worked on drafting the OMB plan. The Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994 mandated the use of the Federal Acquisition Computer Network standard architecture to conduct EC, but recent legislation repealed this requirement.

"Our report is the first effort by government to produce a coordinated report for electronic commerce buying and selling," Trenkle said. "I see this as a major step. It's the first building block in implementing electronic commerce."

"What we've done here is what I would call a first," said Howard Stern, chairman of the IAC Buying and Paying Task Force, the group that drafted the report. "The initial electronic commerce implementations in government were a failure. One reason is that the government did its planning in a vacuum. This time it asked industry for input about doing business electronically." What industry told the government in its report, Stern said, is that "we don't want to invest in a separate infrastructure to do business with the government. We want there to be a single face to industry, [but] it's a virtual infrastructure that operates under interoperable standards."

The IAC report is significant, said Katherine Hollis, deputy director, EPIC Buying and Paying Task Force, because it is the first time industry requirements have been collected and presented in this way.

"Industry had never been asked, 'What do you think you need?' " she said.

Where the OMB strategic plan is lacking, however, is in its use of general terms, such as "managing change," instead of more concrete suggestions. "The report uses too many buzzwords, which tend to send fuzzy signals to the contractor community and to agencies," said Christopher Yukins, a partner with Holland & Knight. "[The Office of Federal Procurement Policy] needs to send some clear signals on where government is going in electronic commerce."

The strategic plan lists seven principles that agencies should follow to make the transition to EC, which include outsourcing transaction processing, taking advantage of commercial applications and making the buying and paying processes more efficient.

Government-unique EC systems "will be developed only as a last resort for low-volume transaction activity, where industry has not invested in platforms to provide commercial services," the plan said.

The plan also laid out "building blocks" including the wider use of electronic catalogs, contract writing systems and security services that authenticate buyers and sellers on the Internet that are necessary for wide-scale EC.

Similarly, the IAC report suggested that agencies ensure the security of procurement-sensitive information, place orders electronically and standardize the format for submitting electronic bids.

The report also recommended that the EC infrastructure be based on commercial standards, such as open buying on the Internet, Secure Sockets Layer protocol and Hypertext Transfer Protocol for World Wide Web-enabled EC applications. Use of other standard tools, such as Java, also will ensure that agencies' electronic catalogs are compatible.

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