Paperless contracting hits mark

The paperless office may still be a pipe dream, but Defense Department procurement officials moved a step closer to proving the effectiveness of a paperless procurement system during an annual exercise.

The exercise, called Cobra Gold, used the Standard Procurement System to streamline the procurement of products and services and found that improved procurement systems are a critical asset in warfighting efforts. And those lessons will be incorporated into this year's exercise in May.

SPS, under development since 1997, has been plagued by delays, management problems and user complaints during the past several years.

But contracting officers supporting last May's Cobra Gold exercise in Thailand carried out their duties electronically for the first time and found that paperless contracting not only saved money and time, but resulted in better support for the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines stationed on the front lines.

Cobra Gold is an annual joint military exercise in Thailand that has been run for nearly two decades. The two-week exercise is designed to ensure regional peace and strengthen the ability of the Royal Thai armed forces to defend Thailand or respond to regional contingencies.

In addition to putting soldiers through their paces, the exercise also requires procurement executives to ensure that warfighters have what they need when they need it during contingency operations.

Using SPS, procurement officials were able to track buys including meeting last-minute, quickly changing needs and delivering products and services on a set schedule to more than 14,000 troops stationed in 17 camps across Thailand.

"It's not about a bureaucracy moving paper," said Paul Renard, SPS program manager for American Management Systems Inc. "It's not even about logistical guys moving widgets around. It's about people in the field carrying guns having the stuff they need to avoid casualties on our side" and to win.

Paperless contracting ended up being a force multiplier, DOD officials said, cutting the time it took for contracting officers to do their work. "Because of the time savings, [contracting officers] could devote more time to quality assurance and quality control," said Col. Jacob Haynes, Cobra Gold program manager.

Another success, Haynes said, is that the system meant 75,000 fewer printed pages of paper.

The contracting process typically has been reliant on a paper-based process that often necessitated manual intervention — a "word processing drill," Haynes said. To ensure that products and services were being delivered, the process required contracting officers to follow up numerous times, fill out stacks of forms and make multiple changes to those documents as they are processed.

Instead, procurement officials equipped with laptops are able to set requirements, change contracts and input fiscal information once. They can electronically fax contract documents, printing them out only when necessary.

Marine Corps officials, who are spearheading Cobra Gold 2002, are adopting some of the Army's lessons learned about SPS and contingency contracting for use in this year's exercise, AMS officials said.

The paperless system used in Cobra Gold was not only effective and efficient, but DOD officials said the system was also easy to learn and was used by everyone involved in the support operation, from logistics, procurement and financial management professionals to civilian Thai nationals participating in the exercise.

Cobra Gold is not a test for procurement officials, Renard said. "These are real, live contracting actions," he said. But those actions could be a basis for whether SPS can be deployed on a larger scale.

The $326 million system has been under scrutiny because of program delays. A recent report from the General Accounting Office leveled harsh criticism at the Pentagon's management of the program.

"DOD's management of SPS is a lesson in how not to justify, make and monitor the implementation of [information technology] investment decisions," the September 2001 report said.

Renard said Cobra Gold is just a "blip that shows what the program is achieving."

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