NIH launches purchasing software that is more than a catalog

The National Institutes of Health plans to unveil new electronic purchasing software today that will allow customers to order products and services from its governmentwide indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts using a World Wide Web browser.

The software, called Procurement Vehicle Management (PVM), was developed by Gaithersburg, Md.-based Information Flow Inc. as a way for government resellers to assess the products available to them from their suppliers. NIH is the first federal agency to purchase the package.

Everett Carpenter, information technology manager with the NIH Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment Center (NITAAC), said the application will allow customers to compare offerings from multiple vendors without requiring the vendors to maintain current product listings in a central catalog.

Bob Timney, president of Information Flow, said his company rejected the "shopping cart'' approach of many other online purchasing systems, in which vendors post their wares and prices, and customers select products. "A shopping cart is great for a person who knows what they want to configure,'' Timney said, but it is not as effective for buyers who have functional requirements and not specific products in mind.

Agencies purchasing from NIH's Electronic Computer Store II contracts will have to use the system for their orders beginning today. Elmer Sembly, director of outreach and education for NITAAC, said NIH will turn the service on for the ImageWorld and Chief Information Officer Solutions and Partners contracts within three to four months.

A Single Source Still Needed

Delores "Dee'' Smith, who ran the Defense Department's electronic commerce (EC) program until she retired last winter, remarked that the service is part of an "explosion" of Internet-based purchasing tools used in federal agencies. "I am extremely excited to hear an agency is taking this step,'' she said.

Nevertheless, Smith added, the government needs to take steps to provide vendors with a single source for procurement information so they do not have to log onto multiple Web sites to find acquisition opportunities. "You sure don't want to circumvent the innovativeness of the agencies,'' she said, but "these things need to be hyperlinked. There's no guru out there policing this stuff.''

Smith, who has been working as a consultant since December, said that next month she will join OAO Corp., an NIH contractor, as the director of systems development for EC.

Using the new PVM software, agency buyers who log onto the system through the NITAAC Web site (nitaac.nih.gov) will fill out an electronic request for quotations form, which will be delivered to the vendors they select. Vendors will retrieve this information and submit their bids, and then customers can choose one and place their order. All the information about the bids and the orders will be stored in an NIH database and fed to the contract administrators who track them.

NITAAC's Carpenter said the system will help NIH compile weekly sales reports and keep tabs on the processing fees that agencies must pay to use the contracts. Eventually, Timney said, his company plans to add an electronic payment module to the package so agencies can use their purchase cards to pay for their equipment.

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