As one of the unitary authorities set up in 1996 and with a strong procurement services organisation, Caerphilly County Borough Council had all the right attributes for e-procurement.
The 26-strong team, led by head of procurement Andrew Maisey, operates three separate warehouses with a turnover of £1.7m a year. Some £15m in goods and materials is delivered direct to users, ranging from schools to council offices.
Maisey is something of a procurement evangelist who has steadfastly driven the council's e-procurement project.
Although the project is still in its pilot phase the roots go back to the council's formation. "I had a notion in 1996," says Maisey. "I had always wanted to get all the departments in the council to order and requisition stuff electronically."
But at that time there were more pressing tasks. Maisey explains that the priority at the time was to make the council's legacy systems Y2K-compliant. This effectively put paid to Caerphilly's plans to develop a system internally as Y2K occupied the time of the internal IT staff - a situation that was exacerbated when some of his staff were poached by another organisation.
Then in 1998 the council began working with fledgling UK supplier Get Real Systems and its Proactis software. The tendering process had produced another supplier, which had experience of AS/400s and Unix. But Maisey was a man on a mission and knew that he wanted NT servers so "it just didn't work out", he says.
Even so, the initial specification fell well short of Maisey's dreams. "We decided to go down the client/ server route," he says.
When Internet technologies started to be developed in earnest, Maisey was quick to see the opportunities it held for his procurement dream and persuaded Get Real and the council to change the system's architecture. He says, "We got in at the grassroots level of e-procurement."
Moving forward was relatively easy from that point. "I knew what the spec would be because I had already written that," he says.
And from the outset, Maisey says the performance on the council's existing networks has been very good, so the council did not have to pull forward its plans to upgrade its networks. "If we'd had to invest in new networks it would have been a no-goer," he says.
The council went live with the software in January 1999. At this point it was still looking at the client/server model and continued to do so for a further 12 months. The subsequent switch to the Web-based model put the project back several more months.
For the past six months the council has been conducting a pilot involving its audit, social services and procurement teams, giving them "a robust version to play with", and a copy of the live model of the database has been subjected to rigorous testing. "Now it is right and we are ready to roll it out live," he says. The first to use it properly will be the audit team, in the next couple of weeks.
So far feedback has been constructive, not negative. "I think generally they were quite pleased with it," Maisey says. But he believes the software is only a fairly small part of the problem.
"Local government is finding it hard to come to terms with the idea that there won't be any paper," he says. "Changing cultures and attitudes is hard work. It's a long haul."
The process involves sitting down and talking to end-users. But Maisey points out that people are more computer-literate nowadays and less frightened of technology than before and this has helped. Also, the procurement department was keen to adopt e-procurement, so getting them on-side was not difficult.
And the system is fairly simple and easy to use. "We didn't want bells and whistles," he says. "It is very intuitive. If you can use Word and Excel it is no problem." As for security, access to the system is limited. "What we tried to do is only give users access to what they need."
Maisey was determined that the system be used for strategic procurement, such as services, and not just for low-value, high-volume transactions such as buying stationery. Achieving this will require lateral thinking, he says, "It is not a technical issue."
He is keen to point out that the e-procurement system is "not an end in itself: it is a means to an end".
The system will be used to capture information to help the council when it comes to negotiate contracts. Maisey says a major problem in the public sector is "knowing what you have spent, how you have spent it and with whom". And trying to do this with purchase ledgers is extremely difficult.
However, he points out that this is a medium- to long-term goal. "You get the feeling that lots of people think they can switch on an e-procurement system and have the information already there," he says. "It takes time. It is all about hard work at the end of the day."
As for return on investment, Maisey expects the council to get its money back by the end of the year. "Caerphilly's going to see a lot of benefits from this," he says.
Maisey puts the success of the project down to a good relationship with the supplier and a strong internal IT department. And he is already planning the next step, looking at electronic invoicing and e-tendering. "That will be a challenge," he laughs, "But you have got to move forward."