When the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (E-SIGN) took effect in October 2000, it generated buzz about how digital signature technology might be used to streamline government processes.
Four years later, few jurisdictions have applied the technology in a significant manner.
Indiana is an exception. The state is testing a service that allows government records to be digitally signed, legally certified and delivered electronically by the state's Web portal
The pilot, currently under way at the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV), uses the United States Postal Service's (USPS) Electronic Postmark, developed by AuthentiDate, and digital signatures from GeoTrust to simplify certification of driver records being admitted as evidence in court proceedings.
The state is the first in the nation to offer the USPS Electronic Postmark service in a state court system, said Candy Irven, general manager of accessIndiana, the state's Web portal.
Weeks to Minutes
The BMV pilot was launched in December 2003 and involved three counties. Today, the expanded service is available to county prosecutors in all 92 counties. Forty-nine of those counties actively use the online service through the state's portal, which is managed by Indiana Interactive, a subsidiary of NIC.
Before the online service was available, prosecutors waited up to six weeks for processing and mail delivery of certified driver records they requested. Today they search the BMV database for a driver record, which is attached to a digitally signed and sealed letter from the BMV commissioner. The document is then postmarked using the USPS Electronic Postmark and delivered electronically to the county prosecutor's office.
The record can then be used in court, saved for later use, or printed and filed with court proceedings.
"The electronic postmark identifies when a document is signed and verifies it," said Irven. "That allows us to go back later and verify that the contents of that document have not been changed, and that the signature is valid and was valid at the time of signing."
Legislation recognizing the validity of electronic signatures already existed in Indiana, so rolling out the new service was fairly straightforward.
"We found a need for a digital signature, we found a technology that was easy to implement, and we had the ability to implement it quickly," Irven said. "It was also a technology that was simple, cost-effective, legally valid and flexible enough to accommodate various agency and business scenarios. We didn't want to do something that wasn't going to be used and was not going to create some kind of efficiency for somebody somewhere."
Though Indiana uses a self-funded model for all services developed through accessIndiana, the state still had to contend with how to pay for the digital signature. Every time a certified driver's license is requested, the state incurs a hard cost from the USPS. The state developed two scenarios for dealing with that cost.
"Since the BMV is going to benefit from this by not having to open the mail, sort it, pull a record, sign it, fold it back up, put it in an envelope, get it postmarked and get it back out the door, they decided it was in their best interest to just accept that cost," said Irven. "So the agency is paying 35 cents for each transaction -- less than the cost of a stamp. Going forward, we never want those on the agency side to pay more than the cost of a stamp for such a service."
Eventually the general public will use the system to request certified driver's license records as well. In that scenario, the state will revert to the traditional self-funded model, charging citizens $3 for electronic delivery of records.
Irven said it took about a year to build the relationships among the partners and get the pilot under way. A joint letter from accessIndiana, the BMV and the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council was then sent to all state prosecutors to inform them about the system and encourage them to use it.
Since the pilot was launched, 2,600 transactions have been processed.
"We're still in the process of the rollout," said Indiana CIO Laura Larimer. "But it's been pretty much welcomed with open arms because there is such benefit to the prosecutors using it."
Expanding Digital Signatures
Though it's too early to quantify how beneficial the program will be for the BMV, Irven said the high number of online searches has already helped trim staff time required to handle such requests.
"That's 2,600 pieces of mail that BMV staff didn't have to open and answer. It's definitely a step in the right direction," she said, adding that once the system has been up for an extended period of time and open to the public, the BMV can quantify savings and could allocate staff to other tasks.
The BMV estimates 100,000 driving records per year will eventually be digitally certified through the new service.
Reactions from county prosecutors have been positive, said Mary DePrez, BMV commissioner.
"They think it's wonderful, and they say they aren't going to be bothering the BMV anymore," she said. "It sometimes took a long time to get these records, and then when they got them, the trial may or may not go on, so it was a time-consuming process."
The new solution has already earned a 2004 Digital Government Award for the most innovative pilot or prototype service. State officials said they will investigate other uses for the digital signature and electronic postmarking for additional high-volume services that require document certification and physical time and date stamping.
"This technology can be leveraged in a lot of ways throughout the state," Larimer said. "We hope to see a use for this technology for certified vital records for our health department, certified child support payments, limited criminal history reports, crime lab reports, and possibly even for RFP bid submissions. Using the time stamp and digital signature, we could eventually get all our bids completely electronically from vendors throughout the state."
Irven sees unexplored opportunities for digital signatures as well.
"So far we've just done an agency signature," she said. "I'm sure there are a lot of opportunities to get digital signatures in the public for people transacting business with the state on a regular basis. There's a whole world we haven't explored there. This technology is simple and flexible enough that there are probably things we haven't even thought of yet."