Buying smart solutions: Technology is now part of (almost) every government purchase

When municipalities first moved toward automation, early purchases concentrated on delineated silos between technology and non-mechanized purchases. With today’s purchasing trends, there seems to be a computer chip or automation component involved in almost every government purchase.

Changing apparel industry

Whether it’s uniforms for safety personnel, custodians or park rangers, work apparel is a long-standing government purchased commodity. However, the moving pieces of an awarded uniform contract can be complicated. With varying employee needs, onboarding a new supplier can be a long, drawn-out process as the fitting and delivery component is manual and time intensive.

ServiceWear Apparel was recently selected to provide uniform services for the Los Angeles World Airports (LAX). With 1,200 employees to onboard across a two-day period, the company tested a new technology developed by their manufacturing partner, Workwear Outfitters, powered by Couture Technologies. This innovative, virtual try-on tool delivers a precise fit, streamlines the sizing process and enhances the client experience.

During the onboarding process, LAX employees arrived on-site to physically try on their new work apparel. Afterward, Workwear Outfitters and Couture engaged the employees in a test of this new technology. After measurements were taken, an employee steps on a specialized mat in front of a computer tablet. The system generates a custom avatar, fitting the same garments to the employee’s virtual body. This technological process generates size recommendations that are true to the employee’s actual body measurements within garment dimensions. In the future, there will be no need to haul dozens of uniforms in different styles and sizes to the employer location for fittings. This approach also addresses specialized sizing, supports hygiene protocols and minimizes returns.

According to Jim Burnett, chief development officer for ServiceWear Apparel, “A proper fit is important to guarantee adequate range of movement, temperature control, safety and positively impact employee morale. A two-hour trip across town to a uniform store to be fitted will become a way of the past. On-site sizing sessions can take 15-20 minutes per employee compared to less than two minutes with this new technology. We are excited about the potential of this new approach.”

Public safety greater communication

Whether it’s a multi-car accident, civil disturbance or natural disaster, public safety crews require good communication to handle any emergency. During the past decade, technological advances in equipment and networks have resulted in smaller packaging and lower costs compared to previous iterations. This trend provides tools to make the important work of the first responder more effective and safer.

One of the most significant improvements is a nationwide, interoperable, wireless broadband network with priority and preemption for public safety to reliably transmit information. Called FirstNet, access to the network is managed by the federal First Responder Network Authority, and provided through a Sourcewell cooperative contract with AT&T. This revolutionary concept has been adopted by 3.3 million subscribers representing 20,500 public safety agencies and now being replicated in other countries.

However, a railroad network without trains doesn’t provide much benefit. As a result, the second advancement are the devices and apps to collect data and information for first responders to protect lives and property. A great example is the use of thermal imaging cameras. In thick smoke with limited visibility, these devices allow firefighters to see each other and any victims requiring rescue. In the past, due to budgetary constraints, a fire department might be lucky to have one of these devices available for the whole department. These devices are now smaller and affordable enough for every firefighter to potentially be armed with this tool. Cameras can also be mounted on drones for search missions to find missing persons, securely transmitting collected data over the FirstNet network.

Crosby Grindle, who leads strategic development for public safety at Sourcewell, states, “technology continues to evolve in the public safety space. The integration of an entire ecosystem of devices and apps is now available. As a steady stream of new devices and apps continue to be developed, this will dramatically improve how public safety responders are able to share information critical to their mission.”

Solutions focused on pandemic 

Prior to the pandemic, air quality was not often top of mind, and HVAC units were thought to be primarily for heating and cooling. With many school districts experiencing tightening budgets, clean air initiatives were often placed on the backburner. However, when the pandemic struck, air quality suddenly moved to a higher priority.

Just outside of Detroit, Ecorse Public Schools experienced this firsthand, as they updated their facilities to safely welcome back students and faculty. With federal relief funding, district leaders made the decision to work with a long-term supplier partner, Johnson Controls. Experts began implementing $1.7 million in new solutions across four buildings—elementary, middle, high schools and administrative center.

Each technology solution was chosen to meet the school district’s unique needs. In a large building, air handling units can often be hundreds of feet away from the actual distribution point. An IsoClean filtration unit allows schools to address clean air on a localized, room-by-room basis. By equipping classrooms with this unit and integrating all into the centralized Metasys system, school administrators gain an advanced level of control, allowing scheduled operation according to demand.

“This was one of the few times in education that we didn’t have all the answers, so we sought out experts who could give us those answers to provide clean air guidance,” said Dr. Josha Talison, superintendent at Ecorse Public Schools. “My advice to district leaders facing similar challenges is to take your time to find the right solution that meets your needs. Work with a partner that you trust can help you act strategically.”

According to Jenny Stentz, vice president and general manager, HVAC and Controls for Johnson Controls Building Solutions North America, “incorporating technology into existing building infrastructure can lead to improved occupant productivity and overall greater building efficiency. Leveraging technology to improve indoor air quality is no different. Smart HVAC solutions can enable automatic detection of poor air quality that can be remedied from anywhere, thus creating healthy spaces for occupants.”

New technological solutions in construction

Northern California’s Yuba Community College District was experiencing roofing problems as persistent leaks raised the possibility that a dozen roofs needed replacing within a short timeframe. Seeking a long-term solution, Director of Facility Planning, Maintenance and Operations David Willis contracted with Tremco Roofing and Building Maintenance’s affiliated construction services company Weatherproofing Technologies Inc. (WTI), to make repairs across campus. Within this partnership, the district approached alternative solutions to integrate technology to be cost effective, maximize long-term performance and utilize the newest products in the industry.

Finding the best technical solutions was only half of the challenge, as the district also wanted to manage control of the campus-wide project. Procuring a solution through WTI’s OMNIA Partners cooperative contract enabled the district to deploy its own staff as project managers.

Many roofing projects are often accompanied by disruptions, smelly chemicals and hazardous environments. However, this was not the case, when 174,000 square feet of roofing for dozens of buildings was restored, repaired or replaced in just four months. By using a newer high performance, odor-free technology solution (AlphaGuard system), no odors were emitted. Important to a learning environment, the buildings remained occupied throughout the project, avoiding overtime costs and disruptions.

David Willis, district director exclaims, “this has been one of the best, most rewarding projects that I have ever been a part of. It was not long before the new roof systems were tested with heavy wind-driven rains. Not a single roof leak resulted from the storms. Now that is amazing!”

Meeting sustainability goals with technology

For the State of Washington, the Department of Enterprise Services (DES) Surplus Operations program recycles, reuses, repurposes, or sells products and equipment. Reusing no longer needed items, or selling goods at auction, results in surplus goods getting a new life instead of going to landfills, while bringing value by saving taxpayer dollars.

As a cost recovery agency, Surplus Operations manages those items no longer needed by the owner agency. Other state and local agencies are given first choice to obtain quality reusable items before being sold. On average, Surplus Operations returns approximately 80 percent of all the money generated back to the originating agencies and during 2021, returned approximately $7.5 million to its customer agencies.

During the pandemic, DES was activated by the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC), to support the COVID-19 response. Purchasing more than 330 million pieces of PPE, Surplus Operations had to rapidly repurpose its operations to clear surplus items from the warehouse and establish systems to take in, manage and distribute millions of pieces of PPE across the entire state. Establishing a PPE inventory system where none had previously existed, staff were quickly trained to facilitate mass relocations of PPE inventory and accommodate multiple warehouse changes, while ensuring day-to-day activity and managing operational reserves. The team worked long hours over an extended period to ensure that PPE got to the front lines efficiently and effectively. The newly automated processes routed 100 percent of highest priority orders within 24 hours, and lower priority orders within 48 hours. In one single day, they were instrumental in unloading 17 semi-trucks holding 489 pallets of PPE products—a record high for the team.

Prior to the pandemic, the program sold surplus items through online auctions and a public retail store. As operations began to normalize, the team put together a “back-to-business” rollout of the services they could safely offer under pandemic guidelines. Initially, reopening the in-person store was not feasible, and widespread teleworking and office closures limited incoming surplus material. Adding a “buy now” option to its online format allowed lower dollar materials to be sold more quickly and avoided disposing of assets through recycling. Additionally, processes were shifted from a walk-in/pick-up system to an appointment-based procedure. The appointment-based system garnered a higher success rate for customer accountability. Customers provided positive feedback regarding the new emphasis of increased communication to guide them through the sale process.

While exploring new operational avenues, Surplus Operations added an online storefront through its contracted platform for auctions, Govdeals.com, providing broader on-line presence to bring in additional buyers. For electronics and items confiscated from travelers (knives or corkscrews) by the Transportation Security Administration, increased revenue was realized compared to selling through the brick-and-mortar public store. Through automation, Surplus Operations was able to reduce labor hours to complete these tasks.

The pandemic allowed the team to shift from old practices, redundant processes and siloed operations toward a holistic and cross-functional approach. Through these technological advancements, the program has grown and prospered in ways not seen in over a decade. Chris Evans, the auctioneer supervisor, states, “Optimizing our processes to get ahead of our customers’ concerns allows us to resolve potential issues in a timely and consistent manner.” The team vows to continuously seek ways to service the Evergreen State by offering usable products at lower cost, reducing the tax burden, and keeping unneeded waste out of landfills.

Working smarter through collaboration

As the new procurement officer for the County of Orange, Calif., Maria Agrusa (Pirona), oversees 24 departments with over 250 deputized procurement professionals. She states, “a large agency with decentralized procurement sections makes sharing of contracts more of an issue then one would think.” To address this issue, the team decided to take a new approach and look beyond just their county’s needs.

With the board’s support, her team launched a first-of-its kind, tech-enabled initiative to drive regional collaboration. Creating the Orange County Procurement Alliance, the goal is to combine contracting efforts and leverage the spend for 34 local municipalities within the County. Maria provides a compelling reason for this effort, stating “the industry standard savings from utilizing cooperative procurement is between 5 to 15 percent. With a contract spend of over $2 billion for Orange County, just 1 percent savings equates to $20 million.”

The next step was to identify the platform or mechanism to make the Alliance possible. Maria shares, “luckily the annual California procurement conference was coming up, so I made it my mission to find a solution. I attended every session and talked to every vendor, and ultimately found CoProcure, who offered a free solution that could host all our contracts. They were excited and passionate about building this platform. We immediately sat down in the middle of the conference to strategize on a partnership to leverage CoProcure search engines. And the most amazing part? Their team developed the application in just five business days.”

Mariel Reed, co-founder and CEO of CoProcure, states, “what is special about what we’ve built for Orange County Procurement Alliance is the search experience is embedded on the county’s own website. Therefore, procurement professionals continue to access the government website they are already using. Another benefit is that Alliance members have access to our database of additional listed cooperative contracts to broaden their options.”

The need for collaboration continues as government workers experience supply chain delays, pandemic purchases, and teleworking challenges.

According to Doug Looney, senior vice president, public sector sales for OMNIA Partners, “Cooperative purchasing is a strategic best practice for procurement teams across the nation. Leveraging cooperative contracts gives an agency access to products and solutions at the best price in a fast and efficient process, in many cases from a local business or distribution location. Procurement’s ability to stay agile and innovative is more valuable now than ever, which can be accomplished through the powerful partnership gained when working with a cooperative.”

 

Tammy Rimes, MPA, is the executive director of the National Cooperative Procurement Partners (NCPP). She formally served as purchasing agent for the City of San Diego, the ninth largest city in the nation, and emergency logistics chief during the 2007 Witch Creek Fires. Under her leadership, the city consolidated its warehouse operations, centralized all purchasing and contracting operations, and moved to a more customer focused approach.

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Government Procurement.

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