Post or perish?
Thomas R. Temin
At no less than three conferences in the last month, I heard speakers repeat a prophecy they attributed to Intel Corp. chairman Andrew Grove. In a few years, they said, there won't be any Internet companies because all companies will be on the Internet. Presumably, every company will do business online or disappear.
Government agencies are also moving services to the Internet. Like companies, they are going online on two fronts'their interfaces with the public and their interfaces with suppliers. But the government must answer a question the private sector need not consider: To what extent must it maintain traditional processes for constituents who do not, cannot or will not have online access?
On the government-to-citizen side of the question, there is little doubt that agencies will have to maintain more conventional services for the foreseeable future. For example, the Mint has added electronic commerce capability to its Web site, selling proof sets and other wares online. But citizens who don't want to buy online will'and ought to'be able to mail in an order form with a check to buy an uncirculated set of coins.
But what about vendors that agencies hire as contractors? Ever since agencies first set a toe in e-commerce waters, a chorus of small, disadvantaged and 8(a) vendors have argued continually that electronic data interchange is too difficult and too expensive. It would be anticompetitive to exclude vendors from bidding on government work just because they don't have online capabilities, they say.
State, county and local governments also face pressure, both directly and through legislators, from constituents who feel left out of contracting because they aren't online. And until quite recently, the vendors were right.
Today, though, small companies have myriad turnkey online software choices. Maintaining an online presence costs a fraction of what it did only five years ago. Plus, agencies typically distribute for free the software that vendors need to participate in government e-commerce programs.
There is no excuse these days for vendors to stay locked out because they aren't online. It's time that line of thinking was put out to pasture.Thomas R. Temin