SEWP buying site put on back burner

Instead of trying to fit a square block into a round hole, NASA is taking

a step back from its plan to build a World Wide Web-based ordering site

in order to study the best model for its customers.

For the past four years, NASA's Science and Engineering Workstation

Procurement II program has been working with NIC Commerce to design an e-commerce

site for the contract. SEWP II serves as one of the government's main sources

for Unix and Microsoft Corp. Windows NT-based workstations, peripherals

and network equipment.

NASA has found that the site succeeds when smaller orders are placed

using purchase cards, but the model doesn't work as well for large-scale

delivery orders, traditionally done on paper with an agency procurement

officer. While most Web-based federal purchasing systems focus on the credit

card orders under $2,500, the average SEWP II order is $40,000.

NIC had been hosting a pilot site using its eFed software to allow customers

to view SEWP II's high-end products and buy them using a purchase card or

paper delivery order, said Russell Oechsner, SEWP II project manager for

NIC. Efed is also used by the Air Force Standard Systems Group's IT superstore

and the Navy's ITEC-Direct.

The software worked well, but NASA wanted a much higher level of integration

with external systems within NASA, with the SEWP vendors and with other

agency systems, such as the Defense Department's Standard Procurement System,

Oechsner said.

SEWP II halted the program this month to study whether it is approaching

online ordering correctly, said Joanne Woytek, NASA SEWP manager. Next month

the agency will hire a consultant to look at the commercial options available,

whether the Web is useful for larger-order contracts like SEWP and what

processes federal agencies use to purchase from large-order contracts, Woytek

said.

Mark Amtower, founding partner of Amtower & Co., a direct market

specialist and manager of several federal credit card databases, is trying

to tackle the same question.

"Is the Web really the viable method for the

super-large procurement?" Amtower said. "I think the jury's still out. My

gut reaction is no."

The Web needs more safeguards against fraud and mistakes before large-order

contracts can be executed safely or intelligently via the Internet, he said.

"There has to be some human intervention on larger orders to safeguard

what in fact is a critical purchase," Amtower said.

NASA should be lauded for "recognizing at least in the near term that

the Web is better as a micropurchase tool than a macropurchase tool," Amtower

said.

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