It’s 2017 and Guilford County is finally ready to enter the 21st century.

The county will do so, at least with regard to the way county officials and employees sign contracts, in a move that will be welcomed by county officials, vendors who work with the county and trees alike.

The new method of signing documents for the new year and beyond is expected to greatly speed up the county’s procurement process, which is now a paper-driven slog in which county administrators print out contracts and other documents, sign them and hand deliver them or send them through the mail to the next signer – the same way it was done in 1817.

Guilford County government generates a tremendous amount of paper documents to be signed – often very long ones – including procurement cards, purchase orders and contracts with both local and distant vendors. For every step of that process, not only is the current method a big waste of paper, it’s also a very slow process.

The Guilford County Board of Commissioners is expected to approve the e-signing for Guilford County government at the Thursday, Jan. 5 meeting and make it effective immediately.   County staff will then be able to sign documents electronically and email them, rather than print them out, sign them with a pen and physically pass them along to the next person who must sign. The electronic signatures and the electronic county seal will carry the same legal force as they do on paper documents.

Guilford County Information Services Director Hemant Desai said this week that some other local governments in North Carolina have adopted the practice that’s become more and more common in the private sector in recent years.

He said the current old-school method can also be expensive as well as slow because the county bears the postal costs and, in some cases when things are running late, the county has to pay overnight shipping rates.

“The whole process can take over two weeks,” he said.

Desai said the ironic thing is that, at the end of the process, the final signed document is scanned into the county’s records so the county will have the electronic version to store and distribute.

The users of the new service – for instance County Manager Marty Lawing – will be authenticated by the software. He will click on the box to agree to the terms of a contract and that action will produce a date and time stamp to go with the verified electronic signature. Desai said the technology is similar to what’s used by companies like Amazon to verify the identity a buyer.

“That will authenticate the user and there will be several different layers of permissions,” he said.

For instance, some users will be able to edit the document, while others will only be able to read it and sign it.

The cost of the electronic signature service is $6,600 for every 12,000 signatures.

The move to electronic signatures is part of a larger electronic contract and document management program the county is implementing. That will be a centralized system to approve, process and execute all Guilford County contracts as well as manage other paperwork.

Desai said his department and the legal department had been working on the transition to electronic signatures.

According to Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne, the change should allow county business to move along at a much faster clip and there are no concerns about the legal implications.

“It is legal, recognized by statute and a number of counties are doing so to some degree,” Payne wrote in an email.

NC General Statute, Chapter 66, Article 11A of the Electronic Commerce in Government Act authorizes all public agencies – including local units of government – to use and accept electronic signatures.

Payne added that, for the purposes of the county’s business, the positive environmental impact is the lessor consideration.

“While saving trees is nice,” he wrote, “the main benefit will be speed; we will be able to process contracts faster by using electronic signatures.”