Slow start for e-commerce

The debate over why more federal business isn't done via Web-based procurement systems is sure to continue for years to come. But the question about who is to blame — government or industry — already has definitive answers, depending on whom you ask. Larry Allen, executive director of the Coalition for Government Procurement, said there is no doubt that Web-based procurement systems will save agencies time and money.

"The trick is to make sure that government has the right systems in place," Allen said. "The problem to this point has been that both government agencies and contractors have poured millions of dollars into systems that are marginally useful, at best. The contractor community will be reluctant to fully embrace e-procurement until the government has worked its bugs out."

Gary Krump, deputy assistant secretary for acquisitions and material management at the Department of Veterans Affairs and chairman of the Procurement Executives Council's e-commerce committee, said there were dozens of companies making pitches a few years ago that claimed they could bring his agency true online procurement, but many of them no longer exist.

"We came to dread certain words like "scalable' because they weren't," Krump said. "There are eight or nine companies that are actually doing these kinds of transactions, and only one or two with any kind of experience. But they use Internet years for experience, where every four months equals a year."

He said that private businesses need to evaluate their buying processes and those within the government and make them compatible before e-commerce can succeed. "Businesses are not ready, and some small businesses are not equipped to play yet — if they ever will be."

Allen admitted that the costs still outweigh the benefits especially for some smaller businesses, but it's still up to the government to forge ahead. "Generally, I think most government officials are now moving to take advantage of commercially available technologies, instead of inventing their own legacy systems," Allen said. "This will help expedite arriving at e-procurement solutions all can embrace."

One thing Krump and Allen did agree on was that expectations have been unrealistic for government — and private-sector — adoption of e-commerce.

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