E-Gov's Tools of the Trade: Acquisition made easy

The collection of procurement initiatives known as the Integrated Acquisition Environment could give savvy contractors a leg up on competitors<@VM>E-gov initiative puts the pieces together<@VM>Market research firms: Public databases will help our business<@VM>Procurement data delays rile researcher

Teresa Sorrenti leads the effort to build the Integrated Acquisition Environment. Earl Warrington (rear) is her deputy, Rod Lantier (right) is the program manager for the FPDS-NG procurement data system.

Rick Steele

Even with the wait until year's end, data for the previous fiscal year will be available three months earlier than ever before, "and it'll be correct." ? GSA executive David Drabkin

WT photo

"It's still going to be up to the contracting officer to make a good decision about whether to use that GWAC or not, but they'll know where that information is and be able to evaluate it, to be as educated as possible when they enter into a business relationship." | Earl Warrington, IAE deputy program manager

Rick Steele

Seventeen new tools could be the key to simplifying the cumbersome, complicated federal procurement process.

Government officials, led by program managers at the General Services Administration, are building programs and services such as a system for tracking contractors' past performance on projects and improved reporting on new contracts and procurement data.

The 17 tools come under the umbrella of the Integrated Acquisition Environment, one of the 24 original, governmentwide e-government initiatives launched by Mark Forman, former administrator of the U.S. Office of E-Government and Information Technology.

Through IAE, government officials hope to increase competition for government contracts, leverage existing acquisition systems and eliminate duplicative systems, said Teresa Sorrenti, program manager of the Integrated Acquisition Environment. Sorrenti works for GSA, which, with a team of about 50 other agencies, is leading the initiative.

"We had a lot of good work going on in the acquisition community, but a lot of it was stovepiped," Sorrenti said. "Like having a vendor file in every agency. When a company changed its address, we had many people updating that information in their files. We are working to eliminate that duplication of effort."

Federal contractors could benefit greatly from many parts of IAE -- if they know how to use them.

One of the biggest IAE benefits is the availability of more comprehensive, timely information about government purchases through the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation, a database of federal contracting activity. Ed Naro, a vice president with Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Information Technology unit, said he would use FPDS-NG to identify trends in government buying.

"I would look at the data to understand who is buying what and how much, to make sure we are positioned to provide what they want," he said.

GSA executive David Drabkin, who oversees the IAE program, said a contractor could use FPDS-NG to find which agencies are buying what the contractor sells and how often they're buying it.

"With that kind of business intelligence, you can be much more effective in your marketing and in allocating your bid and proposal resources," Drabkin said. "It will be the most accurate and timely data we have ever had available."

MAKING A BETTER DATABASE

Building the IAE hasn't been easy. The difficulty of the governmentwide effort was highlighted this month when FPDS-NG was not ready to come online for the public as GSA officials had planned.

The launch of FPDS-NG has been eagerly anticipated, because the old database was riddled with errors and users had to wait months to get the information they needed. The new database will provide better, near-real-time data because it will flow directly from agency systems into FPDS-NG. Previously, procurement data was entered manually, which took longer and introduced errors.

Drabkin, GSA's deputy chief acquisition officer, said he was too optimistic when he told reporters Aug. 25 that the database would be publicly available Oct. 1 -- three months earlier than planned.

Although FPDS-NG did go live Oct. 1 for members of Congress and federal employees, the database doesn't yet have enough data in it to be useful. It won't be open to the public until agencies finish loading their data, which could be as late as Dec. 31, the originally scheduled date, Drabkin said.

Rod Lantier, who became FPDS program manager last month, said GSA officials are working with the agencies and FPDS contractor Global Computer Enterprises Inc. to get the data in on time.

"Only a major meltdown would prevent that," he said.

Even with the wait until year's end, data for the previous fiscal year will be available three months earlier than ever before, "and it'll be correct," Drabkin said. "On Dec. 31, people are going to be wowed."

CUTTING PAPERWORK

Several IAE tools eliminate paperwork, freeing contractors to do other activities that build business, executives said. The Central Contractor Registration is one of those tools.

Originally developed by the Defense Department, CCR holds company information that is necessary for doing business with the federal government, including bank account information for electronic payments. As of October 2003, federal contractors must register in CCR to win federal contracts, and agencies must use CCR. Previously, contractors had to register in multiple systems.

[IMGCAP(2)]It is essential that contractors keep their information in CCR up to date, federal officials said.

"It's in industry's best interest," said Mark Krzysko, who oversees implementation of IAE tools at the Defense Department. Each agency uses the information in CCR to send payments to the right accounts. Agencies also use the information to e-mail a company contact when performance evaluations are added to the Past Performance Information Retrieval System, another IAE tool.

If the contact person has left the company and data on the new contact is not in CCR, other company officials won't know the system has been updated, and they could lose an opportunity to dispute a negative review or tout a positive one.

Another paperwork-eliminating effort, the Online Representations and Certifications Application, will collect company information that is used in the contract-writing process. An upcoming procurement rule change will require companies to use ORCA by the end of November, Sorrenti said.

Previously, contractors had to submit their representations and certifications with every contract document. They kept typewriters just to fill out the forms. Now they will enter the information into the ORCA database once annually, and it will be incorporated automatically into contract documents.

"Industry groups get the most excited" about this tool, Sorrenti said. "Now, they can get rid of their typewriters."

GSA will soon award a contract for the Electronic Subcontracting Reporting System, which contractors will use to report their subcontracting activities. Previously, contractors used multiple systems, and in some cases filed paper reports. When the system goes live next year, they will use just one system.

"Individual agencies have good subcontract reporting systems, but if you are a vendor, you don't want to go into 10 really good systems. You'd rather go to one," Sorrenti said.

Agency officials also want one system, said Krzysko, deputy director of defense procurement and acquisition policy.

"They won't be chasing paper," he said. "Right now, it's a very laborious process."

The new system should help agencies better monitor whether prime contractors are fulfilling their mandatory subcontracting plans, said Paul Murphy, president of Eagle Eye Inc., a federal IT market research firm in Fairfax, Va.

"For many years, small firms have complained that they don't get all the money promised them," he said. "Hopefully, this improved reporting will help monitor compliance."

IMPROVING MARKET RESEARCH

In addition to the FPDS-NG procurement database, other IAE programs could help contractors get better market intelligence, executives said.

These include Contract Award Documents Online, a system not yet in development. Currently, contractors must request contract documents from agencies under the Freedom of Information Act, a process that can take weeks or months.

[IMGCAP(3)]Looking at a competitors' contract "would help us, because we could see the scope of the project, the terms of the agreement and understand better what the agency is buying," said Bill Cull, vice president of government solutions for FileNet Corp., a Costa Mesa, Calif., software company.

Building Contract Award Documents Online would make the contracting process more transparent, but government officials are not sure whether it's feasible because of the potential cost and time involved with redacting proprietary information from the contracts, Sorrenti said.

Federal officials are reviewing 118 responses to an IAE request for comment about posting contracts on the Web. Although many responders approved of publishing all contract information on the Web, representatives of several agencies and industry groups expressed concerns about both the administrative burden of putting all contracts online and the risk of inadvertently of releasing classified or proprietary information.

"People feel they need more [contract] information and more timely information, but posting everything might be too much," Sorrenti said. "We're looking at the cost to go all the way and to do something in between."

Another tool that helps both government contracting officers and contractors is the online contracts directory, which lists governmentwide and multiple-agency contracts, said Earl Warrington, IAE deputy program manager. Previously, there was no single place for contracting officers to research all the contracts that they might use.

The online directory, which lists contracts used by more than one agency, will give greater visibility to contractors listed on governmentwide acquisition contracts.

"It's still going to be up to the contracting officer to make a good decision about whether to use that GWAC or not," Warrington said, "but they'll know where that information is and be able to evaluate it, to be as educated as possible when they enter into a business relationship."

CONNECTING THE DATA

Just looking at the complex chart of the 17 IAE tools can bring on eyestrain, Northrop Grumman's Naro said. But when ? and if ? all 17 elements are built and interconnected, the federal acquisition system will be much simpler, he said.

Naro sees an even greater benefit arising from the large e-government project, one he said many people haven't considered: By connecting the many threads of procurement data it collects, the government could model the entire acquisition system. Then federal officials could build a simulation of the model and feed acquisition data into it. The model could predict accurately the effects of policy and regulation changes on the procurement process, Naro said.

"It would allow us to do things more intelligently," he said.

Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at gemery@postnewsweektech.com.
The 17 pieces of the Integrated Acquisition Environment are detailed below. Most IAE elements fall into one of three categories: the Business Partner Network, Acquisition Information Reporting or e-Marketplace. Information about the Integrated Acquisition Environment can be found at http://egov.gsa.gov.

BUSINESS PARTNER NETWORK

1. Online Representations and Certifications Application. Through this Web site, contractors will provide their representations and certifications information online once, instead of through a paper process that was required with every large contract award. An upcoming procurement rule change will require contractors to begin using ORCA at the end of November.

www.bpn.gov/orca 

2. Federal Registration. This system collects information about federal offices that act as trading partners. FedReg sends this data to the Intragovernmental Transactions Exchange System, so that information about each participant can be included with each transaction. This process improves federal accounting.

www.bpn.gov/far 

3. Central Contractor Registration. As of October 2003, all contractors are required to supply company information to this database in order to win federal contracts. In December 2003, the Small Business Administration's registration system for small businesses merged with CCR.

www.ccr.gov 

4. Excluded Parties Listing System. This Web site identifies companies and other parties barred from receiving federal contracts or certain subcontracts and from some federal financial and nonfinancial assistance and benefits.

www.epls.gov

5. Past Performance Information Retrieval System. This database, launched in July 2002, is a governmentwide source for information on how companies have performed on government contracts. Federal acquisition officials use it as part of the evaluation process when awarding contracts. Contractors can access the system to review their report cards and dispute findings.

www.ppirs.gov

6. Electronic Subcontracting Reporting System. The General Services Administration will soon award a contract for system development. Officials hope the system will be complete by March 2005. Contractors will use it to record their subcontracting actions; agency officials will use it to track contractor compliance with subcontracting plans.

ACQUISITION INFORMATION REPORTING

7. Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation. Agencies have begun loading contracting data from fiscal 2004 and previous years into the database. Agencies and Congress can use the database; it will be opened to the public by Dec. 31.

https://www.fpds.gov

8. Contract Award Documents Online. GSA will soon publish a white paper that examines the feasibility of putting federal contract documents on the Web.

9. Intragovernmental Transaction History. This database will track intra-agency payments, such as rent transactions. It is not yet in development.

10. Purchase Card Information. GSA is collecting information from banks on how government credit cards are being used. This information will be incorporated into FPDS. It will result in better analysis of federal spending, especially purchases from small businesses.

E-MARKETPLACE

11. Interagency Contracts Directory. The database was created in October 2003. It is an online directory of governmentwide acquisition contracts and other multiple agency contracts. www.contractdirectory.gov

12. Online Purchasing. Responses to a request for information about online purchasing are being reviewed, and shopping cart and contractor data in government catalog systems are being compared. Officials want to standardize the data so contractors can provide the same information to each one. The effort could result in a Web-based gateway to all government catalogs.

13. Federal Technical Data Solution, or FedTeDS. This database provides agency and contractor representatives access to sensitive documents needed in the contracting process, such as diagrams of federal buildings.

www.fedteds.gov

14. Wage Determination Online. This Web site launched in October 2003. It is a single location for federal contracting officers to determine the wages that should be paid on federal contracts.

www.wdol.gov

15. Federal Business Opportunities, or FedBizOpps. A recompete solicitation was issued in May. Responses are being reviewed. This database lists federal contracting opportunities, awards and changes to solicitations. The transition to a new FedBizOpps should be complete in February 2005.
www.fedbizopps.gov

ADDITIONAL INITIATIVES

16. IGT Exchange. A pilot project for all intragovernmental rent transactions, as well as IT services transactions greater than $100,000, began in October 2003. The participating agencies -- Interior Department, GSA, National Science Foundation and Patent and Trademark Office -- processed these transactions through the IGT Exchange. The Office of Management and Budget is reviewing the project to determine a schedule for governmentwide rollout.

17. IAE Portal. This Web site will provide access to the 16 other elements of the Integrated Acquisition Environment. It is not in development. Companies seeking to improve their knowledge of the federal IT market will be able to get a direct hookup to the government's procurement data early next year. Firms that pay the one-time, $2,500 fee for access to the new Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation will be able to search all federal procurement data and run their own reports, instead of paying market research firms to do the work for them.

And if the Contract Award Documents Online database is developed, contractors also will be able to view federal contracts without paying market research firms to obtain the documents via Freedom of Information Act requests.

Market research firms, however, aren't worried about customer defections. Their executives said if the government delivers what it has promised -- more accurate and timely procurement information -- their businesses will grow.

"We think it's going to enhance our business," said Paul Murphy, president of Eagle Eye Inc., Fairfax, Va. "This will free up our time to do stuff we've had in the pipeline for months."

Eagle Eye is one of several market research firms in the Washington region that help contractors sell to government by providing business intelligence, databases for tracking opportunities and other specialized services. Because the market research firms supply much more than the raw data from FPDS, they don't expect contractors to stop using their subscription services.

"The analysis on top of the data is where our value-add is," said Kevin Plexico, executive vice president at Input Inc., Reston, Va. "We have analysts calling the agencies every day, using FedBizOpps, getting interviews and information from clients and other companies, and getting information from the press."

Federal Sources Inc., McLean, Va., also integrates FPDS data into its subscription service. Subscribers can research their competition to find out what contracts they've won, what agencies they operate in and how much revenue is going to their competitors' various business units, said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president of the company.

"With our hundreds of years of market knowledge combined, we have a real good idea of where that data originates, why it is reported the way it is reported and what it really means," Bjorklund said. "We will study 15,000 records to make sure we are interpreting the data correctly and providing additional layers of understanding to our clients."

Plexico said the new FPDS data will improve the company's reports and analysis.

"There's an opportunity to integrate the information in such a way that creates new value for clients," he said. "We can tie an award announced in FedBizOpps to spending in FPDS and the contract document. We could predict what will be spent, when it will be recompeted and who is likely to compete and win."

Murphy said he thinks market research firms that obtain contract documents for clients via Freedom of Information Act requests may see their revenue decline in that area if Contract Award Documents Online is developed, however.

"There's a lot of stigma attached to FOIA-ing documents," he said. "The agencies view it as an administrative burden, and companies don't want to antagonize agencies by constantly FOIA-ing documents. It's partly why Input and Fed Sources offer these services -- to insulate companies from the agencies."

But Bjorklund said he thinks any effect on Federal Sources' business would be minimal because of the way his company bundles disparate pieces of information to help clients find what they need.

"The advantage for our customers is that when they see a contract action in FPDS, they can drill down and get the contract document," Bjorklund said. "We FOIA virtually every IT and professional services contract of significance.

"When a company is thinking about a make-or-buy decision, my belief is that they are going to make a smart business decision and outsource it to someone like us," Bjorklund said.

Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at gemery@postnewsweektech.com.
If the General Services Administration opens the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation to the public by Dec. 31 as planned, that still won't be soon enough for Paul Murphy, president of Eagle Eye Publishers Inc. in Fairfax, Va.

Murphy relies on federal procurement data for the business and market intelligence that Eagle Eye provides to federal contractors. Like all FPDS users, Murphy has not been able to get any fiscal 2003 or fiscal 2004 data while the new database is being developed.

"You don't bring a system down for a year and a half while you are bringing a new system up," he said. "The public has a right to know ... how agencies are spending taxpayers' dollars."

Murphy filed two Freedom of Information Act requests to GSA seeking fiscal 2004 procurement data from FPDS, but GSA officials have denied his requests, saying the information is proprietary to Global Computer Enterprises Inc. of Gaithersburg, Md., the contractor building the database.

"With respect to the release of the fiscal 2004 prime contract transaction records in the FPDS-NG database, we have determined that releasing this information would reveal insight into GCE confidential intellectual property," GSA executive M.J. Jameson wrote to Eagle Eye's attorney last month.

But Jameson also wrote that "GSA is obligated to disseminate procurement data pursuant to statute." When FPDS-NG is opened to the public, "Eagle Eye can obtain essentially the same information it is seeking under its FOIA request," she said in the letter.

When asked to explain what is proprietary about the records Eagle Eye requested, and to explain the difference between the data Eagle Eye requested and the data that will be publicly available through FPDS-NG, GSA executives said through spokeswoman Eleni Martin: "We do not discuss matters involving the proprietary data of a contractor."

GCE officials did not respond to phone calls about the database.

Murphy argued that "there is not one electron's bit of difference between the data they say they will give us and the data they say is proprietary. ... It's critical that all public data remain in the public domain, no matter how the government chooses to process it."

In an interview, GSA executive David Drabkin said GSA cannot provide what he called raw procurement data because the agency doesn't collect it anymore. With the new FPDS, the data is transferred directly from the agencies to GCE.

And when the data is passed to GCE, "it's automatically reconfigured in a code which GCE wrote, which is proprietary to them. The way it is arrayed in the database is proprietary," said Drabkin, deputy chief acquisition officer at GSA.

? Gail Repsher Emery

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