NASA launches 'paper-less' procurement packages

The Acquisition Division of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory created a system that electronically manages all procurement packages from start to finish.

It’s not rocket science to know that digitizing paper-based processes can save money and time, but a NASA field center is setting an example for how to best tackle the task.

The Acquisition Division of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has digitized hundreds of thousands of documents as part of its plan to make the procurement process paperless. The project began as “Work Different” in October 2012, and 20 months later the Interactive Acquisition Network (IAN) was rolled out.

“We chose paper-less, not paper-free because there’s always going to be some amount of paper,” said Martin Johnson, manager of the Acquisition Strategic Planning Office.

IAN is built on three Microsoft tools that were already part of JPL: Office 2013, SharePoint 2013 and OneNote 2013. Working with the JPL Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO), the division created a system that electronically manages from start to finish all procurement packages.

“Subcontract packages are built on OneNote template-driven forms, then routed though SharePoint workflow using InfoPath 2013 forms to gather reviews, comments and approvals,” Steve Simpson, the acquisition technical lead for Work Different, and Wayne Wong, an enterprise apps software engineer at JPL, wrote in an announcement.

“The system allows for reassignments, rework and resubmittals. Once the approvals have been gathered, the acquisition subcontract manager files the approvals and can then submit the final OneNote package for internal signature workflow – with external signature to be rolled out in the new fiscal year.”

Before IAN, workers created binders filled with tabs and printouts. “If there’s a mistake, heaven forbid, they had to reprint and redo,” Johnson said. Now “we’re able to take that information while it’s done on your system and just drop it into an actual e-binder…. It looks very much like the binders, but it’s all done digitally now.”

A routing process for signatures was important, he added, because sometimes a trip to physically bring paper to be signed took 750 steps one way. Within the next couple weeks a digital signature program will be rolled out.

“We had people walking files around for somebody to look at and review,” Johnson said. “Now the system technologically allows us to route things to various levels and once it releases from one, it goes to the next [and] to the next, and if they have to send it back, it sends it back all within the system.”

Another benefit has been data access and control. Because everything is in a unified location with a unified naming convention, JPL can provide access permission to anybody across the lab based on need.

Since IAN launched on June 2, 2014, JPL has digitized 320,000 to 350,000 documents, and more than 5,000 subcontract packages have gone through the process.

“There’s no real target number because we want everything in there,” Johnson said. “One hundred percent utilization is what we’re striving for. All new business is now in IAN. There’s some historical stuff that we decided not to pull in because it’s expensive to scan and bring it all in.”

Currently, JPL does not use cloud storage or mobile access for the system, although much of the work is done on laptop computers, Johnson added, which lends an aspect of mobility.

To gauge the success of the program, even the commodities section of the division is saving about $30,000 a year because of fewer printer and copier leases and less need for ink, toner and binder supplies.

Johnson attributes the project’s success to change management. To encourage cultural support, employees were integral to IAN from the start. At any point in time, at least 40 percent of staff was involved in subteams building this, he said. “We didn’t have to sell them because they built it.”

Executive support, leadership from the business side – rather than the information technology department – and solid processes were also key enablers, Johnson said. In JPL’s case, its system was proven and certified; it just needed to be done in a different – digital – environment.

“You need to have highly skilled OCIO people embedded into the project,” Johnson said. “They’re managed and pushed by the business side, but they’re enabled by the technical side.”

Looking ahead, Johnsons sees many more possibilities for digitization.

“We’re seeing significant potential in the audit world in that we no longer have to spend weeks preparing for our major audits, pulling identifying paper files or getting them out of storage or from subcontractors’ desks,” he said. “We now have a way to grab those right off line. It can be done by an individual who works in our audit liaison office.”

In the next three to four years, the plan is to integrate all systems into a singular one so that employees can go to an app-like tool on the front end while information is shared in the background among the integrated systems.

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