NIH inaugurates e-services contract

The National Institutes of Health last week became the first agency to turn to a General Services Administration contract for digital certificates as a way to secure electronic transactions with the public, giving the GSA security contract a needed boost.

The NIH issued a task order under the Access Certificates for Electronic Services (ACES) contract, calling for the development of a solution that would allow the agency to receive grant applications and related queries electronically. Digital certificates, used as part of a public-key infrastructure, help secure such transactions by verifying the identities of the parties involved in transactions before they can access sensitive information.

ACES, under development at GSA for more than two years, is intended to provide a vehicle for PKI technology and services that can be used across all agencies in the federal government.

But until recently, agencies and vendors had doubted the viability of the ACES contract, with numerous agencies saying they would develop their own PKI contracts. The NIH task order is the first official sign of federal acceptance since GSA selected ACES contractors last month, said Judy Spencer, director of GSA's Center for Governmentwide Security.

GSA awarded ACES contracts to three vendors—Digital Signature Trust Co., Operational Research Consultants Inc. and AT&T Corp.—but could award more in the future.

The Education Department this month said it also plans to use ACES. Although agencies have been slow to react, these recent developments are a good sign for the future of the contract, Spencer said. How well ACES works for NIH and Education may influence other agencies that are considering using the contract.The NIH project, known as NIH Commons, is intended to make it easier for the research community to interact with the agency. In addition to submitting grant applications, NIH wants researchers and applicants to make other queries on the NIH Commons system, such as whether applications have been awarded and who to contact for more information.

"NIH has been for a few years now developing a process to receive grants electronically from the research community," said Peter Alterman, director of operations for the NIH Office of Extramural Research. "This is a natural progression of where we were headed."

NIH and Education are trying to establish a common architecture for this type of application. Education is looking at ACES for its Access America for Students program, a World Wide Web-based program that will provide access to many government services, from financial aid and tax filing to career services and benefits.

Eventually, the solution developed for NIH Commons could be applied to secure all federal grants programs.

NIH is working with the Interagency Electronic Grants Council, which is developing Federal Commons, a different system that will provide access to grants information governmentwide. The agencies and people involved in that effort have known from the beginning that it is in the best interest of researchers not to maintain a separate method of securing their transactions with each agency, Alterman said.

In addition, the Department of Health and Human Services plans to monitor the NIH initiative as a potential system for the department as a whole to conduct more transactions electronically as part of its effort to comply with the Government Paperwork Elimination Act.

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