Setting the e-commerce bar high

After years of being a pioneer in electronic commerce, the federal governmentis in a position where it appears most savvy when it follows the lead ofthe private sector.

In the latest case, the General Services Administration has taken apage from the private sector and beefed up its GSA Advantage World WideWeb site, overhauling the back-end systems and the user interface. Onlineshoppers now can perform more accurate searches, build a purchasing historyand track orders online.

These are the kinds of services that many federal workers have cometo expect when doing business with commercial online services on their owntime, buying products ranging from books and CDs to computers and automobiles.

Granted, GSA and other federal agencies were talking about e-commerceyears before Amazon.com showed up on the scene. The government made a concertedeffort to jump-start e-commerce by standardizing on the electronic datainterchange-based Federal Acquisition Computer Network in 1994.

But FACNet never became the all- purpose system that the White Househad envisioned five years ago, struggling to gain support until the governmentfinally ended the FACNet mandate in 1998. Meanwhile, the Web emerged asthe preferred vehicle for digital transactions, with people who care nothingabout EDI making online shopping a national pastime.

Amazon.com and other online businesses essentially have built a largebase of consumers who are comfortable with online procurement. GSA recognizesthat. In July, the agency announced that it would close all of its remainingsupply depots and customer supply centers and move all of its customersto the Web — where most seemed to be going anyway.

The federal government took an interest in e-commerce because conductingtransactions digitally can greatly reduce the overhead costs of a purchase.With the volume of business agencies conduct, the savings can be significant.

But such savings and other benefits of e-commerce never will be realizedif agencies cannot meet the standards that customers have come to expectfrom the commercial online companies.

If the government comes up short, its online initiatives, like anycommercial enterprise, will fail to win customer support.

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