Paper Erasers

Online procurement eliminates paper waste at a federal government agency.

Twelve years ago, Congress passed a law called the Paperwork Reduction Act, whose purpose was to “minimize the paperwork burden” on the government and those who do business with it. But paper didn’t quite disappear from Washington, as anyone who has bid on a government contract can tell you.

Still, a few brave public servants have taken a stand against the flood of paper, and Donna Seymour is one of them. As CIO at the U.S. Maritime Administration, she led the development of the Virtual Office of Acquisition (VOA), where 25,000 purchases are now made each year — with no harm to trees.

The Maritime Administration recently managed its largest procurement ever, awarding a $2 billion contract for management services for 70 Ready Reserve ships. “We did the entire process online, never exchanging a single piece of paper,” says Iris Cooper, who, as director of acquisitions, is the chief VOA user at the agency. “When we did the same acquisition five years ago, we produced 1 million pieces of paper.”

And, says Cooper, the VOA enabled her to enlist the help of bid evaluators in Norfolk, Va., and New Orleans, something that wasn’t practical in a paper-driven world.

Seymour says the VOA saved the agency $250,000 in direct labor on the evaluation phase of just one acquisition, and it’s on track to cut the time spent on acquisitions by 50%. The vendors that bid on jobs enjoy similar savings, she says.

The VOA is built on EMC Corp.’s Documentum enterprise content management software, which is integrated with a pre-existing U.S. Department of Transportation contract-writing system. VOA uses a Documentum workflow, online forms and automatic XML tagging. It automates much of the multistep bid and proposal process, from bid solicitation through award notification and contract administration.

Seymour says she and Cooper brought some basic ideas for VOA to the Maritime Administration from earlier jobs at the Defense Department. “It was kind of kismet,” Seymour says. “We really just jelled right away. We had the same vision.”

Seymour says she faced two challenges as manager of VOA development. One was to supplement her staff of four IT workers, which she did by hiring a contractor. The other was to manage user expectations and shifting requirements through a process of rapid prototyping.

“We found that an iterative joint application development approach — listen, prototype, demo, listen some more, refine, listen, demo — worked best,” she says. “We were very flexible in design and development but a little more rigid in the testing and deployment phases.”

Seymour says the Defense Department is pretty far along in automating procurement. “But I think we are certainly in the forefront of civilian agencies,” she says. Other Transportation Department agencies are considering adopting the VOA, she notes.

Cooper says of Seymour, “She got it from the first minute, what I was looking for. She is very adaptable, and she clearly understands the acquisition process. And she empowers her people — she gives them the overall strategy and says, ‘Here’s what I want.’”

See more of the Best in Class special report.

See the list of 2007 Premier 100 winners.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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