The following article was written by AINS Senior Program Manager Michael Eidelkind. To view the original article, click here.
At some point during March 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly all Americans working in offices were asked to not report onsite and instead begin working from home. Since then, the way we work has changed dramatically. In May, the Department of State reported a 90 percent rate of telework among employees, the General Services Administration reported a jump from 50 percent to 100 percent telework, and the Department of Defense reported “900,000 users on the remote work system.”
The COVID-19 pandemic set a major precedent for the future of remote work in the government. While the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 ensured that all federal agencies established policies to enable remote work, not all agencies were investing in the technology to properly support these policies. The pandemic has prompted agencies such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which “ran largely a desktop situation with no mobility capability,” to invest in telework technology like remote customer service solutions centers. Still, many agencies will need to do more to facilitate successful remote work. While COVID-19 exacerbated the need to provide workers with IT tools to enable work from anywhere, the need had already been growing and will not be going away even as the country returns to vacated offices. With work continuing unabated during the medical crisis, the demand for telework is definitely here to stay. Managers will be less afraid to allow telework and workers will be more outspoken about working from home.
Contracts management is in desperate need of additional investment in the current and post-pandemic world. Despite the growth of remote work, many offices in the federal government continue to use paper for their official contract files. The inefficiency of this process has become glaringly apparent, and it’s past time for government procurement offices to make the change to electronic contract management.
Relying on manual and paper-based processes creates a major compliance risk when contracting officers are working remotely. Without access to printing and the resources needed for maintaining paper records, official contract documents required by regulation are not being produced. Auditable documents are not available, and the backlog to print becomes unmanageable.
What will happen when procurement personnel finally return to the office? Despite dozens of other priorities, they will have to deal with a backlog of official contract documents that need to be printed. During a standard day’s work at the office, official documents are created, printed, and filed immediately. But of course, the bigger the task, the bigger the stress, and with a growing backlog of auditable contracts, it remains to be seen how procurement offices will handle this compliance risk.
What better time to move from a paper repository than now? It’s already easy to find examples of official paper documents destroyed in fires, floods, and other natural disasters, like the 1973 fire that destroyed records at the National Personnel Records Center in Overland, MO. That’s why closed contract files are often shipped to secure storage locations for the duration of their six-year shelf life. But what if those contracts need to be audited or reviewed by general counsel? What if there was a way to access those files quickly without needing to pay a removal fee and wait for delivery? And what of the open contract files? Permission-based access opens collaboration possibilities that before were hampered by physical proximity limitations.
Electronic contracts management will solve these problems as official contracts and related documents are generated digitally. They can be retained electronically through their acquisition and administration life cycle and then for the full six years of the FAR-mandated retention period, accessible even when not in use. Electronic contract files are more secure from a risk perspective as they are not susceptible to compliance or disaster risk. They are also better standardized, as every official document can be created from a template and immediately saved in the electronic contract file.
Electronic contract filing also automates the checklist process for compliance. Procurement offices can do away with checklists as workflows and a built-in file structure ensure all required documents are finalized and present. As one of our clients noted, mandating file structures greatly standardized the process. Additionally, document review time was greatly reduced as a result of electronic document review.
In preparation for the future, agencies should invest in technology that can support remote work long-term. Despite back-to-work plans currently taking place at many agencies, economists estimate that telework policies may continue long after the pandemic. As Susan Athey, an economics of technology professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business explains, “People will change their habits, and some of these habits will stick.”
Automating contract management frees employees from the time-wasting habits of printing, hand carrying, emailing, using checklists, and dealing with version control. Contract processes are made efficient through notifications, due dates, and approvals. As contract files are also tracked, reports can be quickly generated to find bottlenecks and avoid repetitive work. Procurement offices can sever their ties with paper documents entirely, as electronic contract management solution providers offer services to scan existing contracts files into the system. As Forrester Analyst Leslie Joseph says, “The time to take a long view of automation is now.”
 MeriTalk Staff, “What’s Next? Securing the New Age of Government Telework,” MeriTalk, May 2020, https://www.meritalk.com/articles/whats-next-securing-the-new-age-of-government-telework.
 U.S. Office of Personnel Management, “Telework Enhancement Act,” telework.gov, https://www.telework.gov/guidance-legislation/telework-legislation/telework-enhancement-act.
 Lia Russell, “Growing pains, successes in remote work during COVID-19,” FCW, June 2020, https://fcw.com/articles/2020/06/08/russell-telework-covid-hud-gsa.aspx.
 The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, “Burned Records,” National Archives, July 2018, https://www.archives.gov/st-louis/archival-programs/preservation-program/burned-records.html.
 Craig Timberg, Drew Harwell, Laura Reiley and Abha Bhattarai, “The new coronavirus economy: A gigantic experiment reshaping how we work and live,” The Washington Post, March 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/03/21/economy-change-lifestyle-coronavirus.
 Leslie Joseph, Glenn O’Donnell, Ashutosh Sharma, J. P. Gownder, Sukriti Dangi, and Bill Nagel, “The COVID-19 Crisis Will Accelerate Enterprise Automation Plans,” Forrester, May 2020, https://www.forrester.com/report/The+COVID19+Crisis+Will+Accelerate+Enterprise+Automation+Plans/-/E-RES160598.
AINS, Inc. has provided innovative adaptive case management products and services since 1988. Our digital process automation platform, eCase, is deployed at over 400 installations, including federal agencies and offices, state and local governments, educational systems, health institutions, and commercial customers. Unlike BPM products that were retrofitted for case management, eCase was built for case management from the ground up, enabling faster prototyping and production of solutions across diverse business processes. By leveraging the power of eCase, AINS excels at analyzing client business requirements and quickly configuring (not coding) scalable solutions that adapt to the needs of our customers.