For decades, procurement in state government has operated with a series of checks and balances to keep the purchase process fair and competitive. Slow and cumbersome, the process, largely developed during the heyday of World War II when computers were nonexistent, seemed to work anyway.
Lately, the procurement system has failed to keep pace with our growing government, now the biggest "industry" in the U.S. economy, accounting for 41 percent of the gross national product, according to Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Weighed down by rules, regulations and statutes -- many of which are woefully archaic -- the government procurement system has not only been slow and cumbersome, but also increasingly costly to taxpayers.
Just when tales of $600 toilet seats and $100 million computer systems that didn't work appeared to dominate the news about government, a new breed of procurement officer has emerged. A perfect example is Gary Lambert, president of the National Association of State Procurement Officials (NASPO) and deputy purchasing officer for Massachusetts.
Lambert doesn't flinch at the notion of change or reform. Nor is he afraid of technology. He has overhauled Massachusetts' procurement system, reducing the regulatory burden from more than 100 pages of process-driven requirements to 12 pages of value-based regulations.
He worked with NASIRE (National Association of State Information Resource Executives) to embrace best-value and other procurement reforms to improve the purchase of technology and helped to create one of the earliest Internet-based procurement systems to publish and distribute solicitations.
Today, Lambert is leading the first multistate effort for electronic procurement -- known as the EMall -- and is championing the strategy of the purchasing official as a knowledge worker. These last two initiatives are high-reward, high-risk propositions, but he believes the time has come for new ideas as the economy and government become increasingly digital.
A tireless promoter of electronic commerce in the public sector, Lambert is constantly courted to speak at conferences and symposiums. Government Technology recently caught up with him between travel engagements.
GT: Massachusetts and several other states launched EMall last fall as a pilot project to test hypotheses concerning electronic procurement. What have you learned so far?
Lambert: A couple of things. First, as we know with any good systems-development effort, it always takes longer than we budgeted. We hit some bumps along the way between October and early February that slowed us down by about four months, but we are now in production. We have 12 companies representing four or five states and we are actually doing transaction activity, purchasing from a number of those companies.
We've learned that the effort is going to take a bit longer than we originally anticipated, although when you compare it to systems initiatives of this nature from three or four years ago, that's still pretty quick. In less than 12 months we went from concept to production pilot.
We've also learned a lot about certificate technology and the opportunities to use digital certificates. We're finding that a lot of folks, both public and private, don't really have a good handle on public key infrastructure yet, and are just now starting to figure out what it all means and how to appropriately use it.
We're also finding that a number of companies are not necessarily ready to do business-to-business solutions. They are learning as much as we are as we go forward. That's a good thing because everyone is starting to gain some experience. We are also learning a lot about the reengineering activity that needs to take place around this kind of effort. One of the pleasant surprises though, beyond reengineering, is there really is among the states an active dialogue about cooperative purchasing through the mall.
Idaho and New York have formed some relationships, Idaho and Massachusetts have formed some