Contract Cybernauts

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While NASA's space shuttles and probes explore outer space, the agency has set up an office in cyberspace for its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts program.

Dr. Barry Jacobs of Goddard National Space Science Data Center in Greenbelt, Md., working with REI Systems Inc. of Vienna, Va., has created a World Wide Web-based system called "Electronic Handbooks," in which companies learn about contract opportunities online, submit their forms electronically, and NASA employees at 10 field centers conduct the entire contract review and selection process across the Internet.

The paperless system, which manages 35 percent of NASA's new contracts, will be "the largest, end-to-end, completely electronic Internet use in the federal government," says Jacobs.

The Electronic Handbooks make it easy for paper-centric employees to get comfortable doing their jobs online, says Shyam Salona, vice president of REI.

"With any system you always need to write a users' guide," says Salona. "The beauty of the Handbooks is they are guides that not only talk about the system, but that are the system."

The Handbooks are arranged in chapters corresponding to steps in the contracting process. Reviewers and managers are led through the chapters based on their different roles in the process. They see only the information necessary to perform their roles. Managers are also able to track where their employees are in the process.

Jane Fox, SBIR program manager at Johnson Space Center in Houston, says she used to have to wait until the final deadline for contract reviews to find out if an evaluator was behind on his or her work. Now she can send reminders to employees who are falling behind.

"At any point in time, I know where everyone is in the system," says Fox.

Besides limiting employee access to only those documents that relate to their duties, the system also uses encryption to protect companies' proprietary data as they zip around the Internet among NASA's field centers.

Byron Jackson, deputy director of the SBIR program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., says tracking paper flow was difficult under the old system. SBIR contract proposals are reviewed by at least two evaluators, often at different field centers. That meant that some 2,500 proposals with at least 5,000 reviews categorized under 120 subtopics were being shuffled around the country. Managing the thousands of documents associated with those proposals across 10 centers nationwide was a horrendous task.

"Now we have all the data in one place," says Jackson. "Everybody can see the same data."

Paul Mexcur, NASA's SBIR program manager, says he expects to reduce the processing time for contracts by at least a third and may save several hundred thousand dollars a year in operating and manpower costs. Mexcur says the technology underlying the Handbooks was developed by SBIR contractors. The Handbooks were then implemented by NASA employees with support from REI.

Mexcur says there was some resistance from the more than 3,000 NASA employees who review, evaluate and process SBIR contract proposals when the new system was launched. But most bought in when they realized they would save time and work with the Handbooks.

The Handbooks and their underlying technologies are free to government agencies because they were developed under contract for NASA.

Jacobs says the Handbooks could be used by SBIR programs at other agencies. Handbooks are also being developed for several other offices at NASA, including the education program and grants management.

Salona says the system is ideal for programs whose users are geographically distributed and involved in complex processes.

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