Revamped e-Buy earns applause

Buyers, suppliers call portal 'effective, more efficient'

Ed Naro, vice president of GSA and IDIQ programs at Northrop Grumman

Donna Bennett, FSS commissioner

The General Services Administration's revamped e-Buy procurement portal is being touted by both federal buyers and their suppliers as an effective tool for increasing competition and making the buying process more efficient.

Eventually, e-Buy could be used by other agencies, said Vicky Thompson, a consultant working on the project for prime contractor Unisys Corp. of Blue Bell, Pa.

"It is broad and scalable enough for any agency and easily deployable," she said. The e-Buy development team soon will demonstrate the tool to the government team working on a cross-agency integrated acquisition e-government project, Thompson said.

The e-Buy request-for-quotes tool improves how federal buyers issue RFQs to GSA Multiple Award Schedules vendors. Previously, buyers issued RFQs to vendors via e-mail or paper, and only a select number of vendors chosen by the buyer had access to the request. Now all vendors can view and respond to RFQs in their product or service category.

"Particularly technology companies on the West Coast ? they would do everything they needed to do [to get on a schedule], but they wouldn't know when there was an RFQ," said Doris Marsh, GSA's e-Buy coordinator. "I think it's going to be a wonderful system, especially for small businesses. Large businesses will get more opportunities, too."

In addition to publishing their RFQs, buyers can send an e-mail notice to vendors informing them that an RFQ has been posted and a quote is requested. On average, every RFQ created in e-Buy is sent to 10 vendors, seven more than is required, said Carl Harris, task order solutions manager for Unisys.

And because the system allows any schedule holder to respond, "we are getting a lot more responses back than [e-mailed RFQs] we are sending out," Thompson said.

In the past, it was difficult for government to be both fair and fast in its contracting, said Ed Naro, vice president for GSA and indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity programs for Northrop Grumman Information Technology, a unit of Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp. Many times fairness trumped speed, but now, with advances in technology evidenced by systems such as e-Buy, it's possible to have both, he said.

"That is important for the taxpayers. Time is money today, and so the ability of the government to get what it needs at the speed it needs is critical," Naro said. E-Buy is a "very powerful system that allows for speed and competition. I think that story really needs to be told."

E-Buy "could lend itself to be a required tool for all contracting officers, because you can reach so many people and ensure competition," Gary Krump, senior procurement executive at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said at GSA's e-Buy relaunch.

E-Buy originally debuted last year. It is part of GSA Advantage, the GSA's online catalog, which provides access to more than 8,800 contracts offering more than 3 million products and services. The new e-Buy launched in mid-June but wasn't officially announced by GSA's Federal Supply Service until Aug. 8. GSA officials now "think we are ready for prime time," said Donna Bennett, FSS commissioner.

Both government and industry customers had found the old e-Buy difficult to use. One serious deficiency was that GSA and industry descriptions of products and services in the e-Buy system didn't match.

"Industry was having a very difficult time figuring out how they registered in the right category. Customers were having a similar problem translating what they needed into this system of categorization. There was a disconnect on both sides," Naro said.

Now GSA classifies vendors using its special item numbers, making it easier for buyers and sellers to find each other, Marsh said.

Even vendors whose bids are unsuccessful will benefit from information they wouldn't have accessed in the past, Naro said. "E-Buy provides intelligence to industry in what the government needs. That helps us in coming up with best-value solutions," he said.

The ability of e-Buy to deliver on its promise will depend on how much use it gets from buyers and sellers and the currency of data it contains, government and industry sources said. Information about e-Buy use and its impact on competition and efficiency is scarce because the revamped tool is still in its infancy.

However, GSA has asked Unisys to collect data in areas such as the number of RFQs sent out and received, and the length of time to make awards, Harris said.

Mary Haefner, a project manager at Veterans Affairs, said she plans to use it to issue an RFQ for a follow-on order for Cisco router maintenance. E-Buy is now easier to use, she said.

Industry representatives said they're pleased GSA asked for feedback on e-Buy and incorporated it into the new version.

"When GSA began the e-Buy reconstruction, one of the first things they did was go out to us [for input]," said Larry Allen, executive director of the Coalition for Government Procurement in Washington, a nonprofit association of Federal Supply Schedules contractors. Coalition members "felt like they had a real opportunity to play a role in shaping the new e-Buy," he said.

Newfound enthusiasm for e-Buy is evidenced by the fact that more than 300 requests for quotes have been created in e-Buy since the new version went live June 15 ? more than had been created in the system since the it launched the year before, Thompson said.

In addition, the new tool has proven to save contracting officers' time, Marsh said. Using the old, paper-based system, it took Marsh 45 minutes to an hour to put out an RFQ after doing market research. Now it takes 15 minutes, she said.

The e-Buy upgrade cost about $300,000 in contractor fees, in addition to costs for GSA contract management, according to GSA. The request-for-quote tool runs using application server software from BroadVision Inc. of Redwood City, Calif. It also includes a search engine by Verity Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., and a database by Sybase Inc. of Dublin, Calif., said Al Iagnemmo, director of GSA's E-Business Division in the Office of the Chief Information Officer.

Government Computer News Staff Writer Jason Miller contributed to this story.

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