INTERNAUT

Single procurement window could save money, speed service

Shawn P. McCarthy

Internet marketplaces are all the rage these days, but the federal government is missing the chance to build its own major commerce center and focus its tremendous buying power.

So-called new economy marketplaces are not like the Internet malls of yesteryear. They're unique business centers around which buyer and seller communities grow and from which a supply chain develops.

Business-to-business services have been evolving into online market makers such as the sprawling VerticalNet Inc. of Horsham, Pa., at www.verticalnet.com, and the high-end, value-added TradeMatrix data services operated by i2 of Dallas, at www.tradematrix.com.

In much the same way, building material and equipment suppliers list their inventory and meet sellers at the site of Buzzsaw.com Inc. of San Francisco. ZoneTrader.com of Minneapolis lets auto companies, particularly partner Ford Motor Co., sell surplus equipment, machine tools and auto parts.

In contrast, the federal online marketplace consists only of several good but fragmented procurement service sites. Several vendors also have built their own government marketplaces.

Only if these resources became a cohesive online whole would they have enough critical mass that procurement officers could easily find their best deals on computer equipment and services.

For example, at NASA's Scientific Engineering and Workstation Procurement II contract site, www.sewp.nasa.gov, I saw different equipment and prices than I did at the General Services Administration's GSA Advantage site at www.gsa.gov/advantage. A federal procurement specialist might need items from both places, and there might be some overlap.

As for third-party government marketplaces, two excellent examples are the www.Buysense.com site of American Management Systems Inc. of Fairfax, Va., powered by eCommerce Network from Ariba Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., and www.fedbuy.com, developed by World Wide Technology Inc. of St. Louis.

Both offer a wide array of computer equipment for direct order, or in some cases via specific federal contracts. Fedbuy.com even has a special GSA section.

But this still isn't a universal window into federal information technology buying. If I were a federal IT manager, I'd want that single window into all procurement contracts open to multiple agencies, plus general catalogs that I could order from.

I'd like a search window that would let me check equipment and prices at all sites. And I'd like the search interface to take me directly to the specification sheets and ordering forms.

I'd also want to track price changes and special deals. And I'd want a notification sent to my pager when my order was ready.

Add news feeds and customer service pages and you will have the foundations of a solid federal procurement community.

Setting up such a marketplace would be a huge effort. The data feeds would have to accommodate frequent catalog updates. Search results would have to represent all vendors fairly. But the end result would be better bargains for government IT buyers, and that would justify the effort.

Although it's a lot of work, such marketplaces are being built on the Internet because people use them and they pay off well.

The logical entity to bring everything together is GSA, which already has the foundations built by the Federal Supply Service. Visit www.gsa.gov/fssintro.htm. And GSA's Federal Technology Service just opened a store for wireless equipment and services at fts.point.com. It highlights multiple government contracts in one place.

The Procurement Integrity Act of 1988 placed limits on how far the government can partner with vendors. An overarching government-run marketplace would have to be fair to all vendors.

The wireless store comes the closest to my ideal of a true marketplace for the federal government. It could serve as a model for building a bigger system incorporating information from other government procurement sites.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at smccarthy@lycos-inc.com.

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