Illusionary automation

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"Bold new bid"

We've seen many changes in the way the federal government buys products

and services during the past few years. Through the sudden rise in the use

of General Services Administration schedules, indefinite- delivery, indefinite-quantity

(IDIQ) contracts, blanket purchase agreements (BPAs) and government credit

cards, the government procurement cycle has been reduced, in some cases,

from years to weeks.

While these changes are common knowledge in the industry, many might

be surprised to learn that technology has played an insignificant role in

these improvements.

Most of the improvements stem from changes in policy rather than technology.

The truth is that technology, despite all its potential, has had only a

minor impact on the federal acquisition process.

Sure, there has been a modest application of technology in the federal

procurement process. But it has largely been used to facilitate or automate

traditional, paper-based processes. Take GSA's electronic procurement system.

While EPS is a useful tool for vendors seeking federal business, it is little

more than an enhanced electronic version of the Commerce Business Daily.

Similarly, the vast majority of government requests for proposals are now

distributed electronically, but again, they are little more than electronic

versions of the old, paper-based documents.

It appears, however, that technology may finally find its place in the

procurement process. Through the emergence of online bidding and e- procurement

applications plugged into government financial systems, technology may finally

make its presence felt in the federal procurement environment.

Take, for example, the online auction. Many folks are familiar with

sites such as eBay and uBid, where visitors bid on everything from computer

equipment to novelty items. In recent months, GSA and the military have

shown a keen interest in experimenting with this technology as a way to

reduce procurement costs and time. The Navy recently conducted its first

online auction, claiming savings of almost 30 percent and a bidding cycle

measured in minutes rather than weeks or months.

There are a number of questions and concerns about the technology and

its place in federal procurement. Many believe that it is a gimmicky practice

likely to lead to the purchase of shoddy products. Others argue that it

might alienate quality vendors who already believe their profit margins

from sales to the federal government are too thin.

Indeed, these auctions already have had a cool reception from the vendor

community. Only time will tell if these concerns are legitimate. But eBay's

success suggests that the technology will gain traction in federal procurement.

Clearly, online auctions are not appropriate for every acquisition.

Like any acquisition tool, such as GSA schedules or IDIQ contracts, they

have their place. However, for those who think they are a passing fancy,

don't dismiss them too quickly. They are likely to be a permanent addition

to the toolbox of government acquisition professionals.

—Plexico is vice president and chief technology officer at Input, an IT market

research and marketing services firm.

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