Beware the Ides of March. Shakespeare’s warning in his play “Julius Caesar” proved true in March 2020 for an entire nation when the acceleration of coronavirus infections forced the United States to shut down its economy in the face of a pandemic. Governments of all sizes were forced to shift many of their employees to work-from-home arrangements in order to contain the spread of COVID-19. Virtually all functions of government were impacted by shelter-in-place orders, but the onus fell heavily on local agencies’ purchasing departments charged with procuring goods and services, upholding policies of openness and transparency to do their part in keeping the motor of government running.
Purchasing professionals across the country adapted processes in order to facilitate continued delivery of services while keeping themselves, elected officials, citizens and vendors safe. Discussion forums on the NIGP’s — the Institute for Public Procurement — site fostered the sharing of ideas on how to keep local government procurement functioning in a safe manner. Some of the virtual measures included conducting pre-bid meetings and bid openings via WebEx, Zoom, GoToMeeting or Microsoft Teams, and receiving bids by email submission or at online bidding services such Bonfire, Negometrix and Public Purchase. Some agencies, such as the city of Portage, Mich., transitioned from executing paper contracts to executing agreements in cyberspace via digital signature platforms, such as DocuSign, One Span Sign and Adobe Sign, rather than in “wet ink” to reduce person-to-person contact.
Executing contracts via “digital signature” proved to be the least costly process change to implement in the wake of straightened budgets wrought by the pandemic’s actual and anticipated impact on city revenues. The city of Portage — located in southwest Michigan — as a member of Michigan’s state cooperative purchasing program, MiDEAL, had the option of choosing between two digital signature providers, DocuSign and OneSpan Sign, after the purchasing department and the technology services department evaluated both solutions.
Any process change, whether or not it includes deployment of software, involves risk of failure, learning something new and dealing with the awkwardness of change. Implementation of digital execution of agreements — i.e., contracts, contract renewals, change orders, payment applications, hold harmless agreements, ad hoc agreements — was no exception. The key to successful adoption of digital execution was to get started as soon as possible. That meant not only learning quickly how to use the program, but also establishing good organization before commencing and, most importantly, just getting started using the service, even if that meant taking small steps and making mistakes. In other words, “just do it.”
Naturally, the city of Portage implemented its chosen digital solution by putting the purchasing department in charge, with responsibility for creating documents for digital execution; disseminating them to outside and inside partners; creating a sensible way to organize the process and the documents; and teaching, encouraging and cajoling others essential to its success to use it. The city’s technology services department worked with the chosen vendor to take advantage of the chosen platform’s capability of using the city’s identifiable email address extension during the contract execution process.
After four months of use, the city of Portage has digitally executed 80 agreements and begun to grant other city departments their own accounts in order to initiate digital execution of various agreements with continued oversight by the purchasing manager. Paper usage has been reduced significantly. Under the old process, four hard copies of contracts were signed in wet ink by the vendor, the city attorney and the city manager. Now, one digital contract is executed with all signers receiving access to the digitally signed final version. Postage cost has been eliminated. Signers of the agreements — internal and external — have been liberated from a paper-based, antiquated process. So, in addition to the immediate goal of protecting the health of all parties to the contract execution process, efficiency has been enhanced by “click to sign” signatures.
Now, as a second wave of the pandemic takes hold, other city departments, such as human resources, are interested in using this technology to enable them to fulfill department activities and functions in a contactless manner. By starting small, establishing sound organization of the process and learning by doing, the city of Portage has set the stage to roll out digital execution to other departments. Dissemination of digital signatures to other departments will not only enhance safety as infections surge, but ultimately, foster greater efficiencies across the organization.