AF takes pre-award process paperless

Frontline Solutions Inc. last month delivered to the Air Force's Aeronautical Systems Center (ASC) a software application that, for the first time, will fully automate the process of issuing requests for proposals in a collaborative environment.

Developed under a two-year, $749,000 Small Business Innovative Research contract, EZ-RFP promises to bring the precontract award process into a paperless environment. The deployment of EZ-RFP is part of a larger effort at ASC, known as the PreAward Acquisition Management System—an umbrella term used to describe ASC's initiative to automate the front end of the contracting process.

EZ-RFP is an RFP authoring tool based on Extensible Markup Language (XML) technology that "dramatically changes the way authors, evaluators and decision-makers create, edit, view and analyze information," said Nintin Shah, EZ-RFP program manager at ASC's pre-award support office. "EZ-RFP provides end users with the correct set of functions and information to author high-value RFPs in a distributed and collaborative team environment."

XML is a World Wide Web authoring language, similar to Hypertext Markup Language, that enables users to create documents that are network or Internet-ready, requiring little or no modification before being posted on the Web or shared by multiple users.

Contracting professionals at ASC currently rely on a process based on Microsoft Corp. Word files for authoring their RFPs, Shah said. However, "it is exceptionally difficult to maintain the most current version of complex acquisition documents" using this method, Shah said.

EZ-RFP, however, produces documents in XML format that can be published directly to the Web and can be formatted in HTML, both of which eliminate the need for paper.

EZ-RFP also includes features that enable users to track changes to RFPs and document author and reviewer contributions and internal comments. It also tracks cross-references between all elements of the RFP. Those capabilities offer what Shah calls a "quantum leap forward" in the ability to develop RFPs in an integrated manner.

The product is a client/server application that runs on Windows 95/98 and Windows NT and requires client machines that have a Pentium processor, at least 400M of local storage and 64M of memory. EZ-RFP also incorporates Java and encryption technology for support to secure remote transactions. It also relies on a relational database tool called Interbase Server from Inprise Corp.

ASC's effort to create a paperless pre-award process meshes neatly into the Defense Department's overall paperless contracting initiative and is "in concert" with deputy secretary of Defense John Hamre's paperless contracting goals, said John Artuso, chief of ASC's Acquisition Support Division. "Although we are looking at the very front end of the process, acquisition does not represent a solitary activity," Artuso said.

"EZ-RFP is intended for a team of authors to work collaboratively on the same, complex documents," said Mike Bray, president and chief executive officer of Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Frontline Solutions. According to Bray, several other government agencies have already expressed interest in the product, including the Air Force's Space and Missile Command. Bray also recently marketed the product at a National Contract Management Association conference attended by government contracting officials.

ASC has targeted its cadre of RFP authors, integrated product teams and process experts as potential EZ-RFP users, according to Artuso. To date, ASC has presented its strategy for using EZ-RFP to various audiences, including the National Defense Industry Association, and is planning to propose a plan for deploying the product governmentwide once initial testing is completed this year, Artuso said.

Frontline Solutions is taking the feedback from EZ-RFP users and developing new and improved features and functions for the tool, according to Bray. In addition, the company is beta testing a new product, called Procura, that is the commercial version of EZ-RFP and would let the commercial sector automate its proposals based on specific government RFPs.

"We're on the front of a technology wave here because the standards change every few months," Bray said.

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