We’ve all been there. You walk into a meeting, set your things on the table, and sit down on the chair only to hit the floor instead. In a corporate office you might buy a new chair and get reimbursed, or maybe your company has a process for requesting new furniture. Regardless, that chair needs replacing.

In the government, the system to replace something small like an office chair revolves around credit cards, called “purchase cards,” paid by the government and used by specially trained employees. In 2014, about 265,000 federal employees held purchase cards. They made more than 20 million transactions totaling more than $17 billion dollars for items that cost less than $3,000. Regulations require that these “micro-purchases” be reviewed to ensure federal employees are properly spending taxpayer money.

To buy that new office chair, a federal employee needs to justify the purchase to an approving official and have a budget analyst ensure funds are available. All of that work is supposed to happen fast for micro-purchases — it’s hard to get work done without a chair — but until recently there were no standard tools the employee, the approver, or the analyst could use to manage and track these requests. Most of that work is done over email, which, while electronic, places the burden of tracking on the employee. If you need a chair, it’s on you to figure out how to keep track of your request through this process. Over time these inconsistencies became inefficiencies that slowed down the whole process. With our partners at the General Service Administration’s Public Buildings Service in Washington, D.C., we’ve started building a tool to help make this process fast and efficient.

Screenshot of the Communicart approval portal

We call it Communicart. It’s a tool that took some cues from the process for tracking “carts” through an approval process on GSA Advantage, a site government employees use to shop at special rates. Our hope is that as this tool streamlines the purchase card approval process, government employees can spend more time performing their essential work and less time on the paperwork required to buy that new chair. An updated process will also help restore public confidence that government employees are only using cards for valid purchases. We’re excited to begin rolling it out to Public Buildings Service employees across the country.

We built Communicart in the open and listened carefully to our users throughout the process. We’ve heard people say things like “this system is awesome,” and even got asked “when do the angels sing?” We’re excited to see how this product grows.

In the past, building a system like this would take months or even years to build a list of technical requirements, put it out for bidding, then wait for a finished product. By working in an agile fashion with 18F, in just a few weeks, GSA had the initial concept built and was able to get immediate feedback from the people who would actually be using this tool. Early feedback helped drive Communicart’s development, and saved time and taxpayer dollars by catching problems while they were small and easy to mitigate

Below is a visualization of our team’s development work, as displayed by tracking their code in GitHub. If you’re interested in the code you can learn more in the project’s GitHub repository. To learn more about Communicart, check out our Dashboard where we have information on the code behind the project, review the slides from our first demo day showing off an early prototype, and check out the Communicart product page.

<iframe src='https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/QDTJZwjR24A' title='Visualization of our team's development work' width='560' height='315' frameborder='0' allowfullscreen></iframe>

We’ll be blogging more about Communicart, how we built it, and who is using it in the next few weeks. We have all the beta testers we can handle right now, but if you’re interested in getting involved in the future, drop us a line.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Communicart’s national rollout would begin in the General Services Administration’s Great Lakes Region (Region 5). The National Capital Region (Region 11) launched Communicart in early July.