NASA to launch electronic RFP system for major projects

Within the next two months NASA will embark on a pilot project that will enable vendors to submit bids and proposals for large projects electronically.

NASA allows vendors to use e-mail to submit proposals for small projects, those that typically are under $1 million. But for larger projects that require proposals containing hundreds of pages of information, e-mail does not offer the "functionality and security" that NASA needs, according to Robert Brummett, business systems manager at NASA's Ames Research Center.

But under a project led by Brummett and others within the NASA Acquisition Internet Service program, vendors bidding on large projects will be able to file electronically using software downloadable from NASA's World Wide Web site.

According to Brummett, vendors will be able to use electronic forms software from Shana Corp. to fill out bid and proposal forms and attach related documents or diagrams. Vendors then would submit all proposal information electronically to NASA via Hypertext Transport Protocol, the protocol used in Web technology. Special digital certificates issued by NASA and Entrust Technologies Inc. software would help ensure the security of the documents being sent, Brummett said.

Once the vendor sends an electronic proposal to NASA, communications management software from Tumbleweed Communications Corp. will go to work routing and tracking the documents. Tumbleweed software also will be used to manage and track outbound NASA communications—alerts that NASA sends to vendors when solicitations appear on NASA's Web site.

The electronic request for proposals pilot will reduce the paperwork burden for vendors as well as NASA employees, Brummett said. "Normally, they would make 10 copies and send it to us by FedEx," he said.

"It's all Web-based, using browsers and e-mail," said Shomit Ghose, vice president of applications at Tumbleweed. He said this approach should help eliminate much of the paper that is used in the current NASA contracting process. "It's a very paper-intensive process, with all the costs and inefficiencies that that implies," he said.

Larry Allen, executive director of the Coalition for Government Procurement, said the NASA approach seems sensible. "I think most of my [members] are going to think this is a good idea," he said. "[Electronic submission of proposals] has kind of been the last piece of the electronic commerce puzzle that people have been looking for."

Security has been an obstacle to finding that last piece, according to Allen. But those involved in the NASA project maintain that tools such as Entrust's security software, digital certificates and Tumbleweed's software should make the process secure.

Brummett said the need for greater efficiency drives the move toward a more electronic process at NASA, which faces a potential $1 billion budget cut in fiscal 2000. In recent years, the agency already has streamlined its operations with an internally developed system that allows contracting officers to post solicitations and requests for proposals directly from their desktops to the Web.

"Now we have the internal back-office process paperless. We want to make the exchange with vendors paperless," Brummett said. "We're really trying to reduce the cycle time."

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