How to push e-commerce into the mainstream
Shawn P. McCarthy
Federal buyers have always been leaders in purchasing computer hardware, software and services online. But that doesn't carry over to other types of government purchases.
According to a recent study by Jupiter Media Metrix Inc. of New York, less than 1 percent of all government purchases are via the Internet. In some ways, this statistic indicates a failure of the broad government procurement process, because the Net is still one of the best ways to comparison shop what's available.
The General Services Administration set a July 1 deadline to bump up its roster of Internet-enabled suppliers from about 4,000 to around 9,000. That could bring several million new products into the agency's online exchange, GSA Advantage, at www.gsaadvantage.gov
There are other ways to streamline online procurement for government buyers, as well as sellers:
- Take advantage of the many state offices that exist to help local businesses sell to the federal government. Try to push them toward federal electronic commerce hubs.
For example, consider the Wisconsin Procurement Institute site, at www.wispro.org. The group has been around since 1987 to assist Wisconsin companies in selling products and services to federal, state and local agencies and prime contractors. But if you click down into the site, you won't see much more than lists of procurement contacts. There's little GSA information and almost nothing about buying and selling online.
Such groups are a focal point for thousands of local businesses, but federal online procurement offices will have to mount a major outreach effort to draw them in.
- Be aware of, and join, centralized systems that are evolving. For example, GSA recently designated the FedBizOpps.gov site as its single source for federal procurement opportunities exceeding $25,000. After Oct. 1, all agencies must use the site for public notice of such procurements. To learn about the interface, visit www2.eps.gov/pilotGeneralInfo/Overview.html.
- Train workers to use online procurement systems'a key reason why some offices don't buy online. One good starting point is the Federal Acquisition Institute, which coordinates such training. Find out more at www.gsa.gov/Portal/offering.jsp?OID=113621. Or visit GSA's online university at www.gsa.gov/Portal/offering.jsp?OID=113587.
- Don't try to duplicate efforts of commercial exchanges such as eFederal.com, FedBuy.com, FedCenter.com and GovPlace.com. Government procurement sites should act as ringmasters for these sites, to ensure that government purchasing agents can search through all available products.
It might be possible to establish daily data feeds to a central federal site where procurement officers could see everything available to do better comparison shopping. With automated Extensible Markup Language data feeds and standardized data sets, government procurement sites could become powerful central reference points.
- Piggyback on state procurement systems. Yes, this is very hard to do, because most states have roll-your-own systems, and compatibility problems are extensive. But with XML, federal procurement sites should be able to share databases of requests for proposals and quotations for display anywhere. Likewise, state data could be displayed on federal sites. That would broaden the range of buyers and sellers and make government offices more likely to connect with businesses set up for electronic procurement.
- No matter what is being purchased, it's likely that information about the pricing, product specifications and inventory exists somewhere online. Unfortunately, it's usually spread across multiple systems and is not searchable. Buyers can and should push for standardized data formats that require vendors to provide such data for central searching and evaluation.
Without centralization, procurement officers end up making multiple phone calls, shuffling faxes and jumping from site to site. Until there is radical improvement, that's the only way they can get their jobs done.
By itself, any one of these ideas would boost the percentage of federal online procurement by a point or so. All of them taken together could make serious inroads on paper-based government commerce.Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at [email protected].