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Franklin County, Ohio, Builds Transparent Procurement System From Scratch

County officials say procurement wasn't working as well they'd like, so they began building a new system using HTML5, JavaScript, jQuery, and Active Directory.

In Franklin County, Ohio, officials are designing a new procurement system from the ground up.

Perhaps the catalyst for such an endeavor was the fact that County Auditor Clarence Mingo waited for more than two months to receive the iPad Mini he ordered. At that point, someone realized that a dose of transparency and accountability would do everyone some good.

“[It’s about] really focusing in on our customers and making sure we’re giving them what they’re requesting, versus what we think they should have,” Mingo said. “There’s a balance that needs to be struck there, and we believe there’s a way to do that effectively.”

Mingo’s iPad Mini ordeal -- where no one knew who should be held accountable for the fact that the order was never processed completely -- was an example of a flawed system common to many governments, he said. Mingo and Application Development Manager David Smalley said they hope the new system will fix all that and offer a new solution for other governments faced with the same issue.

And the county is taking cues from private enterprise on best practices, including the use of Scrum agile software development to develop the new system in-house, with an eye on efficiency, Mingo said.

The new system is essentially a Web-based interface for procurement tracking and alerts, Smalley said. The entire system will be automated, transparent and allow the county to hold the correct person accountable for a given step in the procurement process, whether it’s the purchase of hardware, software or any other thing the county needs to buy.

The transparency the county is aiming for, Smalley said, is along the lines of what customers see when they shop on or track a package using UPS. Customers at Franklin County will be able to see through the red tape and gain a new understanding of what’s going on.

Now in mid-development, the first three weeks were spent identifying workflow processes and determining who was accountable for what, Smalley explained. The system isn’t just a tracking system, but will allow the county to automate other processes such as auditing and reporting, and will also allow people using the system to receive alerts that are aligned with the county’s legal and regulatory requirements.

“We looked at every piece and part with a fine-toothed comb -- very, very meticulously," he said, "and we looked at the entire workflow from the very beginning to the very end and looked at all the what-if’s."

Once the workflow is established, system creation will begin -- and the project, Smalley said, is an investment in time, as all the work is being conducted in-house; nothing is being purchased. Once it’s finished, however, the county claimed it will save thousands of hours in conducting manual processes. What once took hours to complete will be automated in a matter of five seconds, Smalley said.

The project will be built using HTML5, JavaScript, jQuery, and Active Directory, and Smalley said they chose those technologies for their portability. In addition to being able to offer their system on multiple platforms, the county also wanted the option of changing their backend systems without having to redesign their whole procurement project. “Nothing is proprietary,” Smalley said.

The county said it expects to have the project completed in one or two months, at which time they can start enjoying the benefits of a faster, more transparent and smoother workflow. The county also plans to integrate other systems into their new procurement system, including their activity tracking, project management and help desk ticketing systems.

This is the first time the county has used an agile development approach for software development, Smalley said, adding that the approach was chosen because it allows the county to include its users in the decision-making process every step of the way, and end up with a finished product that meets the project’s intended goals.

Eventually, he said, the county would like to use the agile development approach for other projects, including public-facing systems. For their first attempt, however, Smalley said an inward-facing system seemed like a good guinea pig. And so far, he says the county is optimistic about what it has created.

Photo of Columbus, Ohio, in Franklin County, courtesy of Shutterstock

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.