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Acquisition staffs tend to be shorthanded and face retention issues, time pressures and administrative requirements that are frequently overwhelming, making them ideal candidates for tools that reduce administrative burden. In federal procurement, at least 30 percent of a Contract Officer’s time is spent on data entry, matching purchase orders with invoices, and other administrative tasks that put a drag on their valuable time and skills. Automation can enable procurement staff to spend more time on critical tasks, such as clearer requirements, market intelligence, savings, risk, other forms of category management, customer service, advancing small business goals, and ongoing skill development.
So why aren’t they more common?
Shifting from low-value to high-value work is a longstanding goal of federal management agendas. The use of automation and procurement-as-a-service expertise and analytics, which can free employees from routine tasks, have earned much attention – for good reason.
A common solution has been to contract staff to augment existing employees. But more people/more resources is a stopgap measure; agencies are not strengthening how they work, nor getting more value – instead, just adding significant cost to handle more workload, and process purchase orders in the short term, without solving their long term issues. Massive system implementations, like other sweeping initiatives, add to the complexity and raise so many points of friction that, when it comes time for action, the conventional approaches too often falter altogether, or the benefits are diminished.
“Traditional approaches to ‘transform’ procurement effectiveness are no longer enough,” says Scott Quehl, a former chief financial officer and chief procurement officer at the United States Department of Commerce, and presently principal director at Accenture Federal Services. “We need to incorporate proven commercial-grade approaches and technologies. The impact on mission and taxpayer value is too great not to.”
“Thankfully,” says Quehl, “there are now low-cost, low-code technologies and FAR-compliant procurement-as-a-service support services that are relatively easy to use, with costs that don’t outstrip agency budgets. These tools use analytics, automation, and deep expertise to help federal procurement officers deliver tremendous value quickly, in ways tailored to their needs. If adapted by enough agencies, the cumulative impact can be transformational, with less risk, cost, and friction than traditional ‘transformational’ technology and reorganizational initiatives.”
“Within our own Accenture procurement operations, we have modernized in order to automate 40% of procure-to-pay processes. Invoicing and purchase order processing are ripe processes for automation,” said Rennie Cory, Senior Manager at Accenture Federal Services. “These are time consuming activities: things like contract closeout or contract filing, e-filing process, and even some of the milestone process of communicating to end users of what the timeline would be for finalizing a procurement. These processes can be automated, and would produce significant benefits with improved consistency and quality and overall employee satisfaction. People are happier because they’re able to focus on more strategic work.”
Automating the procurement process is the first step on the path to the kind of transformation that is discussed so often. Automation platforms can integrate directly with federal agencies’ Systems of Record, leveraging existing technology investment and federal financial systems, such as SAM.gov, PSCTool.us, and USASpending.gov, along with their existing ERP solutions. Data can be managed as-is, without investing in time consuming clean-up efforts. Automation platforms can integrate robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI) into their workflows for better acquisition management processes, productivity, user experience, and staff engagement.
Technology is not the only solution available to agencies for these types of results. Quehl notes that federal shared service goals can be achieved real time when they draw on FAR-compliant services from commercial shared service centers. “This does not mean outsourcing,” Quehl says. “Federal contracting officers maintain control of all inherently governmental functions. They tailor the market intelligence, sourcing, or other services to do what they need. In Accenture’s case, they tapped into over 1,400 category managers and heavy doses of analytics and automation used for over $340 billion of annual procurement spend through the Berwyn, Pennsylvania based national acquisition support center. The amount of commodity purchasing flowing through the center is about the same as that of the United States Government. So there is a lot capability there, and receiving ongoing investment to be world class; and solutions available at a federal officer’s fingertips, would be beneficial.”
“For government clients,” he continues, “it’s all about expanding the capability of the contracting officer, as she/he needs it. One agency saved 15% on sourcing a key aspect of its global supply chain operation, drawing on the center’s logistics category management experts. Another agency is using the center to strengthen market intelligence for commodity pricing. The commercial shared service is already in place–so why not use it, and deliver value in months, not years? You see the same capability now available for federal cyber security operations. It’s exciting, and it’s real — shared services, as a service. Combine that with low-cost, low-code technology, and you’re in business for real-time transformation.”
There has been a longstanding concern that adopting these kinds of technologies and services may lead to the loss of jobs. But recent examples of federal automation adoption, as well as the priorities expressed across presidential administrations, put a priority on reskilling rather than reductions in staff and allow existing resources to process more of their workloads faster.
“In the past,” Quehl said, “there was a sense that commercial technologies and services were too often not well suited to government needs. There were some good reasons for believing so. But the commercial marketplace is adapting to understand the requirements and needs of the federal procurement community. Whether it’s a technology or tapping into these very high value services as needed, federal contracting officers can now possess a new generation of easy-to-use tools, all within reach.”