When Hollywood directors needed to film a stereotypical government office, choked with paper, they knew where to go. On several occasions, film and TV crews shot footage of harried clerks sifting through mounds of paper documents at New York City's Bureau of Law and Adjustment in the Office of the Comptroller.
But these days, film crews have to look elsewhere for a messy city government office. The bureau now uses document imaging and workflow to sweep up the paper trails that used to meander through the office. However, the transformation from paper to images was no simple
feat, according to Michael Aaronson, bureau chief.
Aaronson is responsible for managing the largest municipal self-insured claim investigation and settlement operation in the world. New York City receives over 32,000 new claims annually and paid out nearly $300 million in settlements during the last year.
For nearly 100 years, little had changed in terms of how claims were processed. "In 1990, we had one PC for 160 people," recalled Aaronson. When his staff was downsized 34 percent the same year because of the city's financial crisis, Aaronson realized the system had to change. The Office of the Comptroller hired Universal Systems Inc. (USI), a systems integrator, to install an imaging and workflow system.
On a Friday in September 1994, bureau staff handled their last claims using paper documents. On Monday morning, the $7 million document imaging system took over. Over the ensuing months, the Bureau and USI struggled to mesh state-of-the-art technology with a government culture trained to work according to pre-20th century rules.
For nearly everyone, the biggest shock was the cutover, when the system known as OAISIS (Omnibus Automated Image Storage and Information System) began processing information. One day the staff used paper, the next day they sat at computers and used keyboards and monitors. Most experts recommend phasing in technology over a period of time, but the bureau simply couldn't afford to run parallel systems. "We didn't have the staff resources to run two systems," said Aaronson.
Despite an extensive amount of pre-testing and the use of prototypes to familiarize users with the system, the impact was overwhelming. Like firefighters putting out brush fires, USI's staff roamed the bureau's office in teams, using two-way radios to direct assistance to problem areas.
Prior to the cutover, the bureau converted backfiles of existing documents. According to Aaronson, the conversion of 750,000 documents into images went smoothly. But converting the bureau's mainframe database was a different matter. Nearly 600,000 data records for claims dating back to 1975 had to migrate to an Oracle relational database that resides on the new system.
Staff was aware of what Aaronson called the "missing pockets of data" that existed, but few realized the difficulty of recognizing and correcting problems among so many records. "We were able to correct the data gaps," said Aaronson, "but we had to put a lot of time and thought into how to handle the problem correctly."
The bureau hoped to capture its biggest benefits from the workflow portion of OAISIS. Workflow is a sophisticated software program that automates routine tasks, allowing managers to control the routing of documents and to balance workloads.
But automating a staff's workflow can lead to surprises. For example, the bureau decided to automatically route any correspondence relating to a settled claim to just one manager who would decide the document's fate. Within a few weeks, that manager's electronic in-basket contained over 6,000 documents. "Prior to imaging, we never knew what we received that fit the criteria for that type of document," explained Aaronson. "The situation forced us to rethink our approach to this task."
A World of Accountability
Meanwhile, attempts by the staff to accept the technology were having mixed results. They attended formal training classes to learn how to use Microsoft Windows, operate a mouse and use the imaging software. For some workers accustomed to handling paper, the transition was not easy. "Information in training classes doesn't transfer well into the real world," Aaronson pointed out. "It's very hard for the average person who has worked with paper their entire life to sit at a computer screen, learn to manipulate data and realize exactly what is taking place. These workers had a hard time conceptualizing what was happening."
Some workers also found it hard to accept the fact that they were leaving a world where there was little accountability and entering one in which every document is monitored. With workflow's tracking and auditing capabilities, Aaronson was able to gauge the productivity of his employees for the first time. Hoping to motivate them, he used the information to create needed criteria for giving productive employees merit increases. "For the first time, we were able to present to our administration substantiated reasons why someone deserved a raise based on merit. This was totally new. I don't think anyone in this department had received an increase based on merit in years."
Similarly, Aaronson was able to document employees who weren't performing. He admitted that the staff was first shocked that the system would be used this way. Not surprisingly, a number of workers had a hard time working in this environment and resigned. "In a way, it was a good thing for both of us," Aaronson remarked. "They didn't want to invest their time in learning the new technology."
After using OAISIS for nearly three years, the city's Office of the Comptroller is generating substantial benefits. The bureau has cut its backlog of claims awaiting settlement by nearly 50 percent. That, in turn, has enabled the city to settle more claims out of court, which is always less expensive than litigation -- a savings of nearly $2.5 million. Through attrition, Aaronson's office eliminated several positions no longer needed because of automation, saving the city another $300,000.
Adding a new twist to their work as claims examiners, staff is using information captured by OAISIS to file claims against people who damage city property. So far, the Office of the Comptroller has collected $3 million. The system has also helped the office detect fraudulent claims -- once an overlooked problem. The city saved $250,000 through better scrutiny of filed claims.
According to Rod Lustan, USI's operational manager for New York, the Office of the Comptroller's learning experiences are somewhat universal. "Imaging is often introduced where departments have had little or no experience with computer technology," he said. The trick is foreseeing which problems can cause the most damage and tackling them head on. One way to ensure success is to have the buy-in of the MIS department to help support the system once the integrator has finished the job.
On a scale of one to 10, Lustan gave OAISIS a big 10 for what it has accomplished. For Aaronson, who has managed to hang onto his position despite some rocky times, the proof is in how his staff now operates. "Our people are not working harder," he pointed out, "they are working better."
September Table of Contents