FACNET, the Federal Acquisition Computer Network, seemed to be the answer. Developed in the mid-1990s as a government-wide system, FACNET was intended to facilitate electronic commerce and EDI between all federal agencies and the private sector by employing a uniform data format and providing universal user access. But the project was abandoned two years ago after the disparate systems proved too difficult to unite.
The Electronic Posting System (www.eps.gov) – a new joint venture between the General Services Administration, NASA, the Department of Transportation, and other agencies – is a second attempt to create a system through which contractors can see RFPs from a variety of government agencies and through which they can submit bids. Although still in its pilot stage, EPS is expected to demonstrate that the Internet can be used to meet the needs of different agencies while providing a "single face to industry," as its executive summary puts it. The design allows the interconnection with, rather than the replacement of, agencies' existing posting systems.
"FACNET was going to be much more comprehensive, with bill paying and soliciting as well, but the scope exceeded the ability of the federal government to retool what had already been done [by individual agencies] and then retool it again under one umbrella," explains the SBA's D.J. Caulfield. In addition to EPS, he says, there are three major databases that a small business would be interested in: the SBA's Pro-Net, the Defense Department's Central Contractor Register, and the Treasury Department's Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization. Second-tier postings, Mr. Caulfield points out, include the Department of Transportation's Small and Disadvantaged Business listing (http://osdbuweb.dot.gov) and the Department of Commerce's Minority Business Development Agency business listings (www.mbda.gov).
"There's a new process resulting from the Federal Procurement Reform of 1994 in which a procuring agency will identify a broad need of government and pre-qualify companies that are all capable of supplying a major portion of this contract – for example, telephone services," Mr. Caulfield explains. "This Government-Wide Acquisition Contract [GWAC] reduces the paperwork the government has to go through to get a single contract executed. In the case of a GWAC for telephone services, rather than advertising and getting bids, all companies are pre-screened and the contracting officer just has to go pick one. We're finding that these are being used more and more."
Pro-Net (www.pronet.sba.gov), introduced by the SBA in 1997, was one of the first interactive Web-based databases where businesses could register as government contractors and compete for federal contracts. Pro-Net also offers small businesses an outlet through which they can market themselves by creating a "hotlink" to their Web sites, and it serves as an online venue where several small businesses can cooperatively compete for larger contracts.
The Defense Department's Central Contractor Register (www.ccr2000.com) is a single point of entry for contractors who wish to participate in any procurement activity with the DOD (by far the largest source of government contracts, accounting for 55 percent of all federal contracts in 1999). The Treasury Department's Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (www.treas.gov/sba/) is a link to both procurement opportunities and information on Electronic Funds Transfer and other financial activities related to electronic commerce.
"The Internet changes everything when it comes to procurement," says Jane McGinnis, director of the California Central Valley Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC), which advises upwards of 300 firms each year. "Small businesses can use it for marketing, to find opportunities, to prepare a better proposal, or to find pricing history. From the government standpoint, they have streamlined the process so that a small business can tap into these resources."
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