Free Trade Agreement drives new tender platform

The federal Department of Finance and Administration will upgrade the functionality of its online tendering system to comply with new requirements in the United States/Australia Free Trade Agreement. But the upgrade may be more of a 'want' than a 'need' for the department.

The federal Department of Finance and Administration will upgrade the functionality of its online tendering system to comply with new requirements in the United States/Australia Free Trade Agreement. But the upgrade may be more of a 'want' than a 'need' for the department.

ZDNet Australia understands that although the FTA was the catalyst for the upgrade, the government had publicly wanted to provide additional functionality for its AusTender platform as far back as the release of the budget in 2004. This was reflected in the corresponding revision of the Commonwealth's procurement guidelines. A particular desire for the system was to be a proposed single entry point for both agencies and suppliers, as well as enhanced transparency and accountability.

There are two key components of the existing Austender system: a business opportunities notification system, along with electronic tendering facilities. However, under the new Government Procurement Information System (GPInS), only the electronic tendering component will be retained, with the remaining functionality to be provided by other commercial products that the department had become aware were available in the market.

While it has been mandatory for government agencies to use the business opportunities notification part of AusTender for some time, agencies have not been required to jump aboard the electronic tendering boat. However, the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO), which is incorporated into the Department of Finance and Administration, has done an enormous amount of work in educating agencies about the benefits of electronic tendering, as well as signing them up for the system.

Under the new tendering system, which will continue to utilise the AusTender brand name, use of the electronic tendering features will be compulsory for all government agencies. This will comply with the requirements of the FTA.

In addition, the FTA formally requires several other features not fully present within the existing system. Firstly, requests for tender need to advertised on a central system, and there are time limitation rules. For example, the length of time an advertisement needs to be open is an item under the new procedural rules. Also, the FTA allows for additional types of tendering and has other specific publication requirements that the current system is not able to handle as well as the department would like in terms of functionality.

IT consultant Tom Worthington told ZDNet Australia: "I get the impression the improvements are to make it easier for agencies entering the tenders and the central agency monitoring what tenders are entered. The companies reading the tenders online will not notice much of a change as the current system mostly does what they need".

The department has issued a Request For Comment on its draft Request for Tender document for the development and implementation of the GPInS. The RFC makes it clear that data migration of existing data from AusTender is included in the scope of the implementation of the new system, and that the GPInS "will replace the Gazette Publishing System (GaPS) and AusTender". GaPS is the publicly available electronic database that provides the primary reporting and accountability mechanism for government procurement activities; all awarded contracts above AU$10,000 are published on GaPS.

Worthington, who is also a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the Australian National University, said that the draft GPInS specfication is "a model of lucid systems description using the trendy Unified Modelling Language (UML). It should be relatively quick, simple and cheap to turn this into a working system using XML technology. I have submitted it as a student project for the ANU's software engineering student project. A half dozen students should be able to build the system in a few months".

The draft RFT also states that although as part of the 2004/05 Budget, the "Australian government announced that responsibility for procurement information systems would be transferred to Finance on 1 July 2005", the Procurement Reporting and Systems Branch of the Finance and Administration Department is more likely to take over this responsibility in February/March of this year.

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