Government moving all its purchases to online site

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One after another Costa Rican ministries, institutes and other agencies are turning over their purchasing procedures to the Sistema Mer-Link, an online project that is supposed to inject transparency into government acquisitions.

The system would appear to be a boon for vendors both in Costa Rica and elsewhere. U.S. firms, for example, have certain rights to offer goods and services under the free trade treaty with the United States and Central America.

Costa Rica is following in the steps of other Latin countries, like México, Brazil and Chile in putting government purchases online and open to anyone who wants to watch.

The Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad announced that it would eliminate its list of vendors March 7 in favor of the data base maintained by Mer-Link. The Instituto Costarricense de Turismo said last week that it would direct all its purchases through Mer-Link, which has the formal name of Sistema de Compras Públicas en Línea Mercado.

Until now, a vendor who sought to do business with a government agency would have to register with that agency. That meant a series of repetitive filings, and even then there was a chance that the company would miss out on a lucrative deal because it did not happen to be registered with the agency seeking the product or service.

Now all the bid offerings are listed online and can be seen all over the world. A quick check of the principal Web page shows that the Instituto Costarricense de Turismo is seeking office supplies, including paper, plastic covers, a whiteboard and transparency sheets for an overhead projector. This will be a direct contract in which the complexities are held to a minimum. The institute also seeks a refrigerator. All products are described in great detail.

But one has to dig deep to get all the information. The various products and services are listed by code numbers, and vendors can list the services or goods that they offer. Mer-Link promises an email or a telephone call when items are sought that match the products vendors have said they offer. Each solicitation for goods or services also contains the name of a contact person at the agency or Mer-Link for more information.

All of this information was available previously, but not in a concentrated form. Agencies used to advertise their needs in the la Gaceta official newspaper, but it was clear that sales representatives who had established a relationship with the agency got the lion’s share of the deals.

With the electronic system, a firm in Iowa or an expat in Pérez Zeledón would have the same opportunity to respond to a bid invitation at a firm in San José. However, agencies still will require sales people to explain exactly what they need. The personal touch still is needed to stimulate deals.

Mer-Link is a place where the digital signature comes in handy. When the Gobierno Digital program announced the creation of such signatures in 2005, the emphasis was on electronically signing legal documents from afar. But Mer-Link requires a vendor to have a digital signature for full access into the system and to submit bids. The digital signature is nothing more than an encoded card unique to the users and a small card reader that plugs into a computer.

Mer-Link promises a reduction in cost for state agencies, a savings in time, transparency and greater competitivity among vendors.

The Mer-Link offices are in San José above the Mas x Menos supermarket on the Autopista General Cañas just west of Parque la Sabana.

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