Internet procurement a 'go'

NASA is harnessing the Internet to simplify contract management and keep

contract managers aware of the latest in acquisition rules and regulations.

Agency downsizing in recent years has left fewer acquisition policy

experts at NASA centers. NASA officials knew something had to be done to

avoid overwhelming the remaining contracting officers and specialists.

What they came up with was the Virtual Procurement Office. It offers

contract managers a condensed, less intimidating way to access information

and tools available on the Internet or contained in bound books.

The VPO will provide the tools needed to create, modify, manage and

post a contract online. NASA's ultimate goal is to create a paperless contracting

environment, eliminating the volumes of paper files usually associated with

each contract.

NASA first put procurement information for vendors on the Internet about

five years ago with the NASA Acquisition Internet Service, but the VPO program

is unique. "In the past, we've focused on the outside," said Tom Deback,

VPO team leader and a procurement analyst at NASA headquarters in Washington,

D.C. "This is one of the first projects we've done to help us internally."

NASA also offers a virtual procurement library, but it is difficult

to know what rules and regulations apply to a given contract, Deback said.

Contracting officers and specialists need to have the latest information

about laws and information included in Office of Management and Budget circulars,

Office of Federal Procurement Policy policy letters, the Federal Acquisition

Regulation, FAR supplements, handbooks and guides specific to each of the

10 NASA centers.

That's where VPO comes in. "We're trying to take all this information

and put it [together] in a way that makes sense for an operational contracting

officer," Deback said. "You know there's something out there. The beauty

of this is it puts it all in context."

Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., has the VPO fully implemented,

and other NASA centers are testing it.

Unlike other new tools introduced at NASA, the VPO has not experienced

resistance from contracting officers and specialists, said Jim Bradford,

NASA Acquisition Internet Service project leader at Marshall Space Flight

Center. It helps the contracting officers "find the needle in the haystack,"

said Bradford, who has been working with Deback on the VPO idea since last


Acquisitions at Marshall were valued at $2 billion last year. The VPO

has spared contract specialists from repeatedly gathering information about

what rules apply to contracts because the site administrator does the research

once, and it is available to all the workers. "That's a major time-saver

when you're talking about 700 procurement people throughout the agency,"

Bradford said.

As the VPO development team gets feedback from NASA's contracting personnel,

new applications will be added, Deback said.

Eventually, Deback said, he hopes contract workers will be able to automatically

fill the forms with standard information from interfacing databases, such

as the past performance database and Integrated Financial Management Program.

"That's the time-saver," he said. "It really gives a procurement person

a lot of power."

Another goal is to move to an electronic contract filing system, Bradford

said. "Technically, that's a doable thing today," he said. "Culturally,

it will take a little longer."

There are many agencies that provide contracting officers with tools

to write contracts, which is helpful. However, simply automating a system

is not enough, said Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions

Inc., Chantilly, Va. Should agencies be awarding new contracts at all? "The

real benefit comes from redesigning the system for economic and efficient

delivery of goods and services," Mather said.

An agency should consider using contracts that already exist before

drafting one, Mather said. "The contract itself is not the end goal," he

said. Some contracting officers say that unless they are using their own

contracts, their jobs will disappear, he said. In fact, it's just the opposite.

"The more efficient [contracting officers] are, the more valuable they are,"

he said. "It shouldn't make a difference where the contract comes from."


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