Just as automated checkout machines in grocery stores have made the customer both the checker and the bagger, now self-service portals are allowing citizens to become, in effect, their own county clerk.

That’s the case in Ottawa County, Mich., where a new service launching Monday, Sept. 26, will allow citizens to order and instantly print out certified copies of vital records from the county clerk’s office through a Web interface. Few counties across the nation offer this capability, but it might become a common practice as more government services are pushed online.

Users won’t need to visit the clerk’s office or receive paperwork through postal mail. Birth certificates, marriage licenses, property deeds and other records will be available through the online service.

Ottawa County

For the past six months, the Ottawa County clerk’s office has planned for and tested the new online certified document system, which is scheduled to go live on Monday. Ottawa County will use a product called TrueCertify, a creation of Michigan-based software company ImageSoft.

With TrueCertify, documents are encrypted and hosted on a Web portal belonging to the county. When someone requests a document, the county clerk will prepare two items needed to access that document: a document locator and a 256-bit encryption key. In order to preserve security, neither document locators nor encryption keys are stored on the county’s Web portal. Time limits can also be set on documents to prevent unauthorized access.

The company claims its system ensures that fraud and forgery are almost impossible to commit. Safeguarding against identity theft, life insurance fraud and property scams is of concern from official documents from the county clerk. But ImageSoft President Scott Bade believes his company’s system is more secure than paper-based processes that have been used for decades. “When I talk to customers, I usually ask them, ‘How do you prevent fraud with a raised seal?’ The raised seal is somewhat unsecure and somewhat archaic. It’s a throwback to wax seals.”

The Ottawa County Clerk’s Office has spent the past few months testing the system internally and foresees no security issues. “I’m pretty happy with the security. If I wasn’t happy with the security, we wouldn’t be doing it,” said County Clerk Dan Krueger. Tampering with digital documents issued by his office is a prosecutable offense, he added.

The clerk’s office is looking forward to using the system and enjoying its benefits, Krueger said. “Time, money and, most importantly, service,” he said. “We’re trying to alleviate the cost of people driving from one place to another.” The process of document retrieval should be simpler, and the office staff is expected to save money on printer ink, he said.

The system could also help counties collect revenue from usage fees, Bade said, while using the budget-conscious solution.

It’s relatively inexpensive, Bade said. The software uses a tiered pricing scheme that changes depending on the size of the agency using it and usually costs a few thousand dollars. In addition to startup costs, ImageSoft also requires an ongoing service fee, but the time and cost savings created by the system make it worth it, Bade said.

Getting Ready

Because Ottawa County was the first to adopt TrueCertify, it took some time to set up everything, Krueger said. The solution is brand new in Michigan, he said, so the legal ramifications had to be ironed out first.

The Ottawa County clerk’s office already had most of its records digitized, so the transition to offering the documents online was easier, Krueger said. Agencies that haven’t yet gone digital may have a little more trouble.

If all goes well, the new system for certified documents could be expanded outside the clerk’s office. Someday TrueCertify could be used in county courts, where confidential documents need to be moved from court to court. The system could also be convenient for delivering sealed university transcripts.

Although offering certified documents online has been common for several years in private business, the advent of an off-the-shelf product may encourage local and state government agencies to do the same. “I think it will catch on,” Krueger said.

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com