Feds join online auction craze

The federal government may follow private companies into the hot electronic commerce game with plans to test next year an online auction site for federal products and surplus property, including everything from computers to houses.

FinanceNet, an electronic clearinghouse that provides information on government property for sale, and the industry consortium CommerceNet plan to kick off the government's pilot project to create a single online entry point and auction site for government property.

The federal government sells between $9 billion and $20 billion worth of surplus property to the public each year, including cars, houses, boats, furniture, computers, loans and precious metals. That surplus is collected from sources such as drug bust property seizures, assets from housing foreclosures and overstocked government inventories.

However, people interested in buying the property have a difficult time finding out what agencies have for sale because the information is not collected in a single place. In addition, agencies take different selling approaches, such as sealed bids and auctions, and few do it online.

"Almost everyone has something to gain from the program by streamlining access to government assets," said Preston Rich, executive director of FinanceNet. "Agencies can have economies of scale and benefit from the exposure a portal can provide."

The public will be better equipped to find out what's available, he said.

During the first phase of the pilot, FinanceNet plans to build a single portal site that will give the public access to all assets that agencies have for sale and the ability to search the information for specific items, such as a 1990 red Corvette. During the second phase, the government plans to allow the public to buy assets online via an online auction. Phase two, which would involve three to five agencies, could begin in a year.

Agencies that have existing auction or sales sites, such as the Federal Communications Commission, which sells communications spectra electronically, can link to the portal; other agencies can upload their sales information to the portal database. FinanceNet also would like to include sales of stamps from the U.S. Postal Service and coins from the U.S. Mint, Rich said.

"This is a single face of government to citizens in terms of being able to auction things off," said Ron Parsons, director of public-sector alliances at CommerceNet. "It's a good return [on investment] for government and a great opportunity for citizens to have access to this."

The site also could link to existing commercial auction services such as America Online and eBay and incorporate state and local government assets as well, Parsons said.

The idea of a single storefront has merit, but not everything is suited for sale in an auction or online environment, said Robert O'Brien, deputy administrator of the Defense Logistics Agency's Defense National Stockpile, which sells almost $500 million worth of metals and minerals annually. So far, the agency has used its own World Wide Web page to help sell precious metals such as platinum to the public. O'Brien calls it a "hybrid electronic commerce" solution that consisted of placing advertisements on the Web and accepting bids via fax.

"We're looking at future uses of [e-commerce] and the Internet," he said.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development has been using the Net for several years to advertise sales of multi-family properties, but not all of its sales are done via auction, said Marc Harris, supervisory project manager for multi-family housing at HUD.

Everybody agrees that having a single entry point makes sense, but it's premature to plan beyond that, said Mary Mitchell, deputy associate administrator of the Office of Electronic Commerce at the General Services Administration.

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