With the banking industry increasingly worried about preserving its control of the payment system, it is hardly surprising that the National Automated Clearing House Association's annual payments conference was a bigger draw this year.

The show, held last week in Orlando, drew about 1,500 attendees-150 more than last year's gathering.

But bankers were not the only group swelling attendance. Government representatives also made up a healthy portion of the conference's population. That's probably because the government has set a 1999 deadline for making nearly all federal disbursements electronic.

Surprising some of those in attendance, the association indicated it plans to concentrate more on its core automated clearing house duties.

The Herndon, Va.-based organization, which makes the rules that govern regional ACH networks, has in recent years participated in a growing number of payment system initiatives beyond the automated clearing house.

But its leadership decided that with electronic transactions increasingly flowing through other channels, such as automated teller machine networks, the group needs to recommit itself to building transaction volume.

As part of this effort, it formed a task force called Vision 2000. According to Elliott C. McEntee, the association's president and chief executive officer, the task force hopes to "solve some of the problems that are out there today that create barriers to greater use of the ACH network."

To improve use of the automated clearing house-3.3 billion payments were originated in 1996-the task force recommends the development of an automated enrollment process for commercial clearing house transactions, the creation of interfaces with ATM network authorization systems, and the building of links to checking data bases to verify account numbers.

The task force's recommendations will be considered during the association's annual board meeting in June.

If the association is looking for transactions from consumers to boost ACH volume, it appears to have chosen the right executive as chairman.

Harold Piotrowski, who begins a two-year term in June, is manager of retail operations at Charter One Financial Inc., Cleveland.

Mr. Piotrowski-a member of the association's board since 1993 and vice chairman since 1995-will be its first chairman from the retail side of a financial institution.

"I bring something different to the table. Nacha has evolved into both a retail and wholesale utility," said the 48-year-old Mr. Piotrowski, who will replace Andrew L. Higgins senior vice president of Barnett Banks Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla.

"This is an exciting and challenging time for the payments system industry," Mr. Piotrowski said.

There is still time to get in on the ground floor of electronic commerce, said keynote speaker Peter J. Kight of Checkfree Corp., but the time for gaining an advantage with electronic products is passing quickly.

"Right now, 20% of your customers are thinking about going on-line," said the Columbus, Ohio-based payment processor's founder and chief executive. "They expect you to be there when they are ready to act. If you aren't, they are gone to someone else."

Even as it rededicates itself to core automated clearing house issues, the association's ancillary projects are becoming increasingly high- profile, conferencegoers said.

For instance, the influence and scope of the group's Electronic Benefits Transfer Council continues to rise.

The council last year established standards and a network mark (Quest) for delivering government benefits, such as food stamps, through ATMs and point of sale terminals.

More than 40 states and a number of important technology vendors now participate in the council. At least 25 states have agreed to use the operating rules associated with the Quest mark.

At the conference, representatives from the states of Massachusetts and Alabama announced their participation in Quest, which among other things, lets recipients access their benefits through ATMs and point of sale terminals outside their home states.

The National Automated Clearing House's participation in setting benefits transfer rules and standards was not always welcomed by all participants. Some state governments worried about losing autonomy in an EBT system governed centrally.

But many such concerns have diminished, in recognition of the need for a "standardized, commercially accepted way of doing business," said William Kilmartin, Massachusetts' comptroller.

By 1999, federal electronic benefits transfer programs alone are expected to disburse more than $115 billion.

Some presenters used the conference as a forum for discussing general issues, such as whether the national automated clearing house network is living up to its potential.

"We can't reflect on our progress without confronting some disturbing questions," said Paul Connolly, first vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. "When you look at the use of the ACH in the marketplace, it's still disappointing."

Private-sector operators maintain that automated clearing house use could be boosted if rules governing settlement were loosened to let them compete better.

One of the potential benefits of private-sector processing is lower transaction fees.

The Fed, for its part, has lowered its transaction fees, and is trying to loosen the restrictions on private sector processing without exposing the payment system to undue risk. But some feel the situation is not changing quickly enough.

"What will the pricing be if the Fed got out of the ACH processing business and put all the volume into the private sector?" asked Holly Merrill, president and chief executive officer of the American Clearing House Association in Phoenix.

"I would venture to say it would be very, very low."

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