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Feature Article

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE Purchase Card Program Becomes First Government Agency to Go Paperless

Steady change and innovation has been at the core of the U.S. Department of State's (DoS) Purchase Card program since the inception of SmartPay 1. At the program's helm: DoS Program Manager, Margaret Colaianni. Early on, she recognized a need for an efficient and standardized management approach in a global, 24/7 environment. So she embarked on a path of streamlining and standardizing processes, while also seeking innovative solutions based on customer needs.

Beginning with "bread and butter" needs, Ms.Colaianni merged domestic and overseas operations into a single, worldwide program with standardized policies and procedures. With that foundation solidly in place, she then moved to more closely align program and customer needs, and began implementing:

  • Customized card limits
  • Role-based online and classroom training
  • Standardized templates for requesting changes to Cardholder thresholds

Merchant Category Codes (MCCs) and/or one-time requests

  • A standardized audit program, highlighted in GSA's "Blue Book for Success," replaced by GSA's "Managing GSA SmartPay Purchase Card Use"
  • New products such as Foreign Currency and Payment Cards (the latter of which won State Department the 2011 GSA Innovation Award)
The greatest challenge of all

Throughout all this innovation and change, one overarching challenge remained: what to do about all the paper, and how to shift toward a more "paperless" environment. Colaianni started by focusing on the largest paper generators. This became especially apparent during the anthrax scare in September 2001, when State Department had to find an immediate alternative to mailing paper statements and invoices to embassies around the globe. It marked the beginning of the paperless push and served as the catalyst that helped DoS collaborate with Citi to develop online statements. With over 1,700 Cardholders making Purchase Card purchases and bulky paper invoices being mailed to over 250 embassies and consulates around the world, the agency was generating an overwhelming amount of paper.

"Our employees use Purchasing Cards to buy supplies and services to meet mission needs from A to Z," she says, "and their needs can change at a moment's notice, depending on events taking place around the world. All of that activity means thousands of Cardholder statements, consolidated invoices, and quarterly, semiannual and annual reports."

Beyond the pure tonnage of paper being produced, DoS's Purchase Card program was saddled with other related paper-based inefficiencies. With Foreign Service Officers rotating positions on average every two to three years, statements, invoices and reports mailed to employees were often returned, since the individual had departed his/her last post of assignment. And even if the mail could be forwarded, it was annoying for employees to receive statements and reports that were several weeks old and intended for their last post.

A switch to paperless statements

That's when Ms.Colaianni knew it was time for a change. The State Department Purchase Card Program would be the first U.S. government agency to make the switch to paperless statements. In 2008, Department of State migrated to GSA's SmartPay 2 program, powered by Citi Purchasing Cards, for its purchases. And with that, the Department of State Purchase Card Program began a strategic and deliberate transition to the efficiency of paperless statements.

The benefits were nearly immediate. Statements, invoices and reports that were once mailed are now available online at CitiManager within 24 to 48 hours after account cycles close. DoS personnel can simply pull up and view their secure online statements - and even monitor individual transactions - from any desktop, laptop or tablet device. This allows them to take ownership of their purchases, and the time savings translate directly to quicker payments. To comply with document retention requirements, employees can download and save their statements.

The use of electronic statements is also a boon to internal controls, because the period for Cardholder reconciliation and payment of the invoice by Finance is now standardized across all Bureaus and Posts. All told, GSA's SmartPay 2 has led to enormous efficiency benefits for the DoS Purchase Card program, which accounted for $99.9 million in Cardholder purchases in FY 2012.