Aug 17 2020

How to Approach E-Commerce for Federal Government IT

The General Services Administration has launched new pilots for e-commerce in government, but federal procurement and contracting officials need to do their due diligence.

After a lengthy and somewhat bumpy process, on June 26 the General Services Administration announced that it had awarded contracts to three e-commerce platform providers to test the sale of lower-cost goods to agencies as part of the GSA’s Commercial Platforms Initiative.

The no-cost contracts, which went to Amazon Business, Fisher Scientific and Overstock.com, are designed to let the GSA test the use of commercial e-commerce portals for purchases below the micropurchase threshold of $10,000. The pilots are supposed to be up and running now at a small scale, and the GSA has said it will refine them via repeated testing and by soliciting stakeholder feedback.

While such portals are likely to be useful for purchases of low-dollar commodity items, such as pens and paper, government procurement and contracting officials must be very diligent when making purchases. That is especially true for higher-value IT products and equipment. Officials must ensure that what they are buying for their agency, on behalf of American taxpayers, is what they actually need and is not counterfeit or pirated.

Security Concerns Abound in E-Commerce

Procurement and contracting officials must be conscientious about purchasing through e-ecommerce platforms because of security concerns.

In January, President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at tougher enforcement against counterfeit products coming from e-commerce platforms. Right around then, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report, “Combating Trafficking in Counterfeit and Pirated Goods,” which notes that selling counterfeit or pirated goods via e-commerce portals is highly profitable.

“For counterfeiters, production costs are low, millions of potential customers are available online, transactions are convenient, and listing goods on well-known platforms provides an air of legitimacy,” the report states. “When sellers of illicit goods are in another country, they are also exposed to relatively little risk of criminal prosecution or civil liability under current law enforcement and regulatory practices. It is critical that immediate action be taken to protect American consumers and other stakeholders against the harm and losses inflicted by counterfeiters.”

The report outlines actions DHS will take to counteract such practices, including ensuring that entities with a financial interest in imports bear responsibility for trafficking in counterfeit or pirated goods; suspending and debarring repeat offenders; applying civil fines, penalties and injunctive actions for counterfeit and pirated products; and leveraging advance electronic data to analyze mail.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find out how to innovate while overcoming budget challenges.

The GSA clearly took note. “Our approach continues to be shaped by DHS’ Best Practices for E-Commerce Platforms and Third-Party Marketplaces, combining better security practices, better data and better pricing,” GSA Administrator Emily Murphy said in a statement. “I’m pleased that GSA is at the forefront of leading such dynamic and innovative change.”

Federal News Network reports that the GSA “sent a copy of the DHS report to each of the awardees, who are expected to adhere to the recommendations.”

While that is as it should be, the new portals have the potential to put procurement officials in the awkward position of trying to ensure they use e-commerce and do not purchase counterfeit goods and equipment.

VIDEO: See how the GSA helps agencies modernize their IT.

How to Responsibly Purchase Government IT

As government procurement officials ponder the new e-commerce opportunities as well as the risks they need to guard against, it’s worth noting that there are already dedicated e-commerce platforms that they can use to procure IT in a responsible way.

CDW•G’s federal page enables government buyers to search for and purchase solutions sorted by agency and government contract. Importantly, the site is not limited to showing results from one vendor or manufacturer and enables users to compare products and offerings. Users can chat with a real human being via the site and ask questions, even if they do not have a dedicated account manager to work with. Users can get shipping estimates based on their ZIP codes so that they can have a reasonable expectation of when a product will be delivered.

Purchase requests from new customers get routed to CDW•G account managers, who use their expertise to help buyers make sure they are purchasing what they actually need. For example, if a new customer is buying a network switch and forgot to also purchase a piece of equipment necessary for that switch to operate, the account manager would know that and alert the buyer.

E-commerce portals for smaller, less complex purchases are entirely appropriate tools for procurement officials to use to get those kinds of products quickly. However, if buyers are looking for something more complex — say, hyperconverged appliances — they need to use an e-commerce platform that leverages the knowledge of IT experts who can help procure the best solution that meets the mission needs of the agency.

E-commerce in the federal government is here to stay. Contracting and procurement officials need to be wary of security risks and continue to leverage experts to help them buy the right IT solutions for their agencies.

This article is part of FedTech’s CapITal blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #FedIT hashtag.

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