Electronic Commerce

The government’s advance down the electronic commerce road sometimes seems
like Zeno’s paradox as agencies strive to go from Point A to Point B without ever
getting there.

If federal e-commerce appears to be progressing in slow motion, consider this: The
Government Paperwork Elimination Act requires all agencies to offer to the public the
option of interchanging mandatory documents electronically—including the use of
digital authentication systems—by October 2003.

Go paperless in a little more than four years.

With such a forbidding deadline on the horizon, what’s slowing things down? The
short answer is year 2000, which is sapping resources and preoccupying chief information

“The blessing of electronic commerce is not going to come into full play until
after the Y2K situation is over with,” said Tony Trenkle, director of electronic
services at the Social Security Administration and until recently director of e-commerce
at the General Services Administration and co-chairman of the Federal Electronic Commerce
Program Office.

“Within the next 18 months we’ll really begin to see agencies mobilize toward
electronic commerce. Once Y2K falls off the radar screen, that’s where a lot of CIOs
will begin focusing,” he said.

At the Army Materiel Command, new CIO James Buck-ner has had little time to concentrate
on anything other than year 2000.

“I’ve been so tied up with Y2K issues here, I haven’t delved deeply into
e-commerce yet, but I know that’s the future, and that’s where we need to be
moving in AMC,” said Buckner, who was chief engineering executive for e-commerce at
the Defense Information Systems Agency before moving to AMC. At DISA he helped develop a
model architecture for implementing e-commerce at the Defense Department.

Trenkle also predicts that e-commerce will gather more momentum next year as it becomes
a campaign issue.

“Vice President Gore has done a lot in pushing Access America and online
access,” he said. “That’s one of the major themes he’s pushing on his
campaign Web site.”

Access America, part of Gore’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government, is
one of the dozen or so federal programs and pilots designed to illuminate the path ahead
for federal e-commerce and find ways to navigate barriers such as interoperability and

Gore’s fundamental vision for Access America is the ubiquitous use of the Internet
to provide government services electronically to anyone who wants them, anywhere.

Led by SSA, the program recently launched Access America for Seniors, a Web site that
offers services from 15 agencies. A similar site, Access America for Students, is in the
pilot phase.

Another key program is the Catalogue Interoperability Pilot, a collaboration among the
EC Program Office, the Federal Interagency Acquisition Internet Council and CommerceNet, a
nonprofit consortium of Internet companies. The idea is to promote interoperability
between electronic catalogs across the Internet.

A notable facet of the pilot is that it is pushing the use of Extensible Markup
Language, or XML, the new buzzword in e-commerce.

“In the next decade, XML will completely change the landscape” of e-commerce
and electronic data interchange, said Donald Willis, CEO of IPNet Solutions Inc. of
Newport Beach, Calif. IPNet recently incorporated XML-based data import and export
functions into its e-commerce products.

Trenkle doesn’t quite buy such revolutionary pronouncements.

“I think XML has a function,” he said. “It’s just a question of how
much of a function. It’s being seen as everything from a panacea for all the problems
with the Web to just a niche that will help in some of the data sorting and searching

“Everyone’s interested now in XML,” said Margery Reynolds, federal
e-commerce program manager at Microsoft Corp. “But XML is not the total answer to the
dream. XML is just a way of showing lots of data. It doesn’t tell you what to do with
the data.”

XML’s chief asset is that it works like a database language, Trenkle said.
“Potentially, it allows you to sort and categorize stuff in a more logical way,
paving the way for more extended agent-type searches,” he said. Participants in the
interoperability pilot successfully used XML to tag the catalogs and do a simulated
search, Trenkle said.

“XML has a lot of potential for streamlining a lot of processes if people begin
using it widely and develop common taxon-omies,” he added. “But if you
don’t have that, then obviously it’s just going to become a niche.”

But XML could supply interoperability, one of the major bugaboos on the federal
e-commerce road.

“XML provides a common language,” Reynolds said. “That’s what the
federal government needs desperately for e-commerce.”

Microsoft, which is pursuing what it calls an e-commerce-for-everyone strategy,
recently launched BizTalk, an XML-based framework designed to let businesses integrate
their applications with those of their trading partners, re-gardless of the platform or
operating system on which their systems are based.

On the federal side, GSA Advantage, that agency’s online shopping site, is also
looking into XML. GSA recently contracted with webMethods Inc. of Fairfax, Va., to do an
XML pilot. “That’s one of the spinoffs of the CommerceNet pilot,” Trenkle
said. “It got [GSA] interested in XML.”

Another critical encumbrance for federal e-commerce is trusted interaction over open
networks—privacy protection, identity authentication and security.

A new survey by the Information Technology Association of America found that a lack of
trust is the biggest barrier to the growth of e-commerce. In particular, the study
revealed rising concern about authentication.

“We are in a remarkable stage of growth in electronic commerce,” said ITAA
senior vice president Jon Englund. “It’s no surprise that concerns about
authentication are growing, too. When people are online, they want to know with whom they
are dealing—they want to know that people are who they say they are and are going to
follow through with commitments made over the Internet.”

Public key infrastructure technology is emerging as the way to eradicate the trust
obstacles. But can it really?

Richard Guida, chairman of the Federal PKI Steering Committee, said he thinks it can,
if implemented properly. In a guest column in this Spotlight (above), Guida discusses what
he calls the mythology about what PKI technology can and cannot do.

Is PKI technology mature enough? Although PKI standards and products are in a state of
flux, current PKI products work well in limited environments, Guida said.

“They are growing more versatile and robust,” he said. “Using those
products is the best way to cause the technology and standards to further mature and

At SSA, Kim Mitchel, deputy associate commissioner for telecommunications and systems,
sees in technology under development by the Postal Service the promise of an
authentication infrastructure that can be used by many agencies for multiple purposes.

Mitchel, who is planning an infrastructure to support SSA’s e-commerce
initiatives, said the Postal Service’s e-proof technology provides for authenticated,
secure and encrypted transmission over the Internet of files of any size and returns a
certified postmark or receipt.

“The Post Office could basically do for e-commerce what they’re doing for
regular mail delivery service today, which is to provide something that people
trust,” she said.

SSA, she said, has run several modest trials using the e-proof technology and is
working on additional trials with the Postal Service.

SSA also is looking at Access Certificates for Electronics Services (ACES), GSA’s
initiative to offer digital certificates to the public for electronic services use. The
agency earlier this year signed a letter of intent to use ACES for its Personal Earnings
and Benefit Estimate statement system.

“If we’re going to make progress on all of our electronic service delivery
goals to exchange mail electronically with the general public, we need
something—either what GSA is working on with its ACES project or what the Postal
Service is working on,” Mitchel said.

Despite the distraction of year 2000 date code work, agencies are advancing on
paperless-environment goals. For many, the need to go paperless is a matter of sheer

For example, the Veterans Benefits Ad-ministration, which processes 2.5 million claims
each year, was drowning in paper.

The agency has now gone paperless using Radian Systems’ World Scan and WSDOM
capture, high-volume scanning and quality control software.

The new system is cutting paper, but it’s doing far more. In reducing from weeks,
months—even years—to days the time it takes to process a veteran’s claim,
it is using e-commerce to better fulfill its mission. It’s getting from Point A to
Point B. 


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