For many years, people have been trying to simplify and streamline business processes by substituting electronic means for paper documents. These electronic means are generally subsumed under the heading of "electronic commerce," with electronic data interchange (EDI) being one of its subsets. Electronic commerce has several definitions, one of which is the integration of e-mail, electronic funds transfer, EDI, and similar techniques into a comprehensive, clectronic-based system of business functions (Drake, in press). EDI is defined as the computer-to-computer exchange of routine business information using transactions standards agreed to by both parties. The use of standard electronic transactions originated within the transportation, food, and chemical industries, initially using separate industry standards. Now, in the United States, the standards used are usually those established and maintained by the Accredited Standards Committee X12 of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI); these are generally referred to as ANSI X12 standards. Initiatives such as Commerce Net are underway to transmit EDI transactions across the Internet (Drake, in press). Most of the effort to institute electronic commerce is between private companies.
Within federal government contracting organizations, a variety of approaches have been taken to achieve paperless contracting. Electronic contracting is rapidly becoming the norm for awarding small purchases. One very successful application of electronic contracting for large-dollar-value contracts has been implemented by the joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) program office, a high-technology aviation project of the Department of Defense. The JAST office, through the fall of 1995, has completed two rounds of multiple contract awards. Each step in the award process--including issuance of broad agency announcements, receipt of proposals, conduct of technical and business evaluations, and award of contracts--is performed entitely through electronic means. No paper documents change hands between the government and the contractor, nor are any used within the government during the award process (Joint Advanced Strike Technology, 1995).
While there are certainly many differences between contracts and grants (and between grants and other kinds of financial assistance instruments), there are also many similarities. The general process of issuing a public announcement, receiving replies, evaluating them, making an award, and monitoring the outcome is essentially the same in both cases. Therefore, we can be certain that if contracts can be processed electronically, so can grants.
A recent survey found that peer-review panelists who evaluate submitted proposals strongly support electronic preparation (85 percent), notification (75), submission (71), Edward (69), and evaluation (64). Proposal writers were not asked specifically about the desirability of using an clectronic format for their work. They did note, however, that they were dissatisfied with the time now being taken by the paper processes in use and would welcome some form of information technology (Schwartz and Mansir, 1995). Doing more of the work in an electronic format and transferring the documents electronically should allow a more timely process.
Much has been written about the Internet, so only the briefest of introductions is provided here. The Internet is a worldwide network of other computer networks using a common communications protocol known as Transmission Control Protocol Internet Protocol (TCP/IP). It is an outgrowth of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) work of the 1960s to develop ARPANET, which linked Department of Defense computers. Now, in general, individual personal computers (PCs) in an organization are connected via a local area network (LAN) with each other. This network is then connected to a regional network, which in turn is connected to one or more of the public fiber-optic backbones MacKie-Mason and Varian, 1994).
One other general item about the Internet should be discussed--the addresses needed to access the information. These are known as Uniform Resource Locators (URLs); they consist of a string of abbreviations connected by colons, slashes, and dots. Examples from the World Wide Web (www) are http://www.imi.org and http://www.bschool.howard.edu. In this case, http and www identify the type of connection or protocol being used and the rest of the line is the domain, with the designation org denoting an organization (usually not-for-profit) and edu, an educational institution. Also frequently seen are gov for government and com for commercial sites (Goffe, 1995). Often it is possible to identify the source of the address by the abbreviation used in the domain. Above, lmi for the Logistics Management Institute and howard for Howard University are easy to pick out. After the domain is identified, a more specific address string of characters may follow to identify a directory or document. For example, the URL = http:// …