Going paperless in procurement

By John Montenero

A common struggle among public agencies across the nation in running operations is doing more with less resources. That’s what we faced here at Palo Alto’s Purchasing and Contracts Administration, but we have since broken that cycle under my leadership as chief procurement officer (CPO). 

Upon becoming the city’s CPO three years ago, it was clear that customers and vendors had grown increasingly frustrated by the inefficiencies of public purchasing.  With increasing demands for faster and greater delivery of public services, we were just not where we needed to be. The purchasing office took weeks, sometimes months, to deliver on providing just the essential procurement services required.  Strategic procurement practices were nearly non-existent in addressing ways to grow savings, accountability and efficiencies of government. 

Palo Alto has financial obligations and budget constraints that constrain our ability to add permanent staffing.   These economic realities were further complicated by languishing technology, leaving the purchasing office heavily dependent upon paper, which generally equates to staffing requirements.

Following the city’s “cloud-first digital city” approach to its operation and its focus on operational sustainability, I saw an opportunity to improve my team’s effectiveness of service by addressing multiple areas ripe for change through technology and innovation. The most obvious was seeing office space crowded by rows and corralled areas of office equipment, filing systems, floor space and administrative support used to manage paper records. I ran the numbers of these aggregated soft and hard costs that could be strategically used to fund more efficient and economical solutions to improve operational performance.

The biggest challenge facing my team was the culture shift in transitioning from a paper-based legacy into a practice of utilizing technological innovations as solutions. Unlike the private sector where profits drive the need for constant change in a competitive market, government is more about accountability.  This is especially evident where change is sometimes hard, particularly for employees who may have been doing things the same way for years.

Going paperless can initially seem daunting.  There are concerns about difficulty with data integrity and security, user friendliness of systems, ease of learning and change itself. However, we took an inclusionary team approach— we conducted a “cloud readiness” assessment including time and motion efficiency studies and found persuasive results in changing cultural behavior. 

The first phase of our transitioning from paper to paperless was establishing an electronic document management system to iscan and workflow all our records.  We developed a “drop box” automated filing process and self-serve public records request process within the system. Digitized records filing let us re-engineer office work flows toward operating with purely electronic processes. We incorporated other cloud-based platforms such as e-Procurement, e-Policy, e-Compliance Management, e-Signature services, a cooperative purchasing access shopping mall, an online self-paced knowledge center and other pertinent services not already provided within the city’s enterprise resource planning system.

Methods of collaborating via spreadsheets, emails and phone messages are time consuming, error-prone and can leave the lines of business frustrated. So we have since been pursuing application program interfaces (APIs) between these cloud-based services to further automate administrative tasks. The time savings we achieve is redirected to redefining ourselves from tactical to strategic focused in servicing our customers.

Now what once took days, weeks, or months is only taking minutes, days or weeks in processing. Moreover, our error rates dropped, control and compliance increased, risk mitigation advanced, and team morale improved as stress levels dropped dramatically.   The change was so noticeable that other departments observed the improved office service, morale and appearance, wanting the same.  My team’s transformation has since led other city departments to gradually move in a similar direction, giving substantive relevance to the adopted “cloud-first digital city” approach.


John Montenero is the Chief Procurement Officer for Palo Alto, Calif. He can be reached at or (650) 329-2300.



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