Vendors look to soothe jittery feds

As long as the clause question remains unresolved, vendors worry that it could disrupt IT buying by the biggest customer in the marketplace -- the federal government

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"A legal tangle"

As long as the clause question remains unresolved, vendors worry that it could disrupt information technology buying by the biggest customer in the marketplace — the federal government.

"Until 508 came along, agency buyers had a fairly streamlined way of complying with federal regulations," said Tom Hodges, manager of federal contract operations for Xerox Corp. "Then along comes 508 and it places on contracting officers a whole new list of things to do.... There's uncertainty and some discomfort. It would be a shame if procurement slowed down having to contend with 508."

To prevent that, officials at companies such as Microsoft Corp., Compaq Computer Corp. and Xerox say they have made extra efforts to reassure anxious agency procurement officials. "A lot of us in industry have been visiting with Section 508 coordinators and walking through the documentation" that describes the degree to which products comply with Section 508, said Laura Ruby, regulatory and industry affairs manager for Microsoft's accessible technology group.

Xerox conducted a training seminar for procurement officials, agency chief information officers and Section 508 coordinators in August, Hodges said. "Procurement folks just need better guidance and better information," he said.

"There continues to be dialogue and questions to clarify," said Michael Takemura, a Section 508 expert for Compaq.

During the summer, vendors worked with the General Services Administration to develop a standardized "product accessibility template" that companies could fill out, describing the ways their products meet Section 508 requirements.

The aim was to create a common fill-in-the-blank form that would make it easier for agency procurement officers to compare the accessibility features of competing products. But almost as soon as the template was posted on the GSA Web site, agencies began developing separate templates of their own. "Now they're asking us to fill out very comprehensive and rigorous templates that go beyond the requirements of the law or what industry agreed to," a Xerox executive said.

"The problem is contracting officers do not know the law," said a government lawyer involved in Section 508 implementation. "They're blindly trying to apply the rules, and the knee-jerk reaction of the contracting officers is to try to come up with something" that will deflect liability.

It would help to think of Section 508 as a goal rather than a set of standards that must be met, he said. "In many cases, the products just aren't available yet" to fully meet Section 508 goals, he said. "Someone needs to be willing to say this is the best that could be done in this context."

For Monica Dussman, dealing with Section 508 contract clauses has become just another hurdle to overcome when selling services to the federal government.

"We won't walk away from a procurement. We find a way to constructively go forth," said Dussman, Section 508 coordinator at systems integrator Science Applications International Corp.

Although negotiating over clauses adds to the time and cost of each contract, Dussman maintains a degree of sympathy for agency procurement officials. "Do they have people in their offices with the technical expertise to look at the Section 508 standards and see what applies and do the market research that is required? In many cases, they don't," she said.

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