On a cold winter morning, at a mall on the outskirts of Holyoke, Mass., a couple arrives to spend some time shopping. They have also brought along their just-completed tax forms. At a booth inside the mall's main entrance, they drop off the forms and head off to shop. The booth attendant scans the documents with a desktop scanner and transmits the images to a central location in Boston, 90 miles away. There, a forms processing system recognizes the hand-printed characters on the tax form image while the document images are archived on optical discs.

Within seconds the data captured by the system is routed via workflow software to nearby Newton, where the commonwealth's Department of Revenue staff performs data verification and editing to correct any errors occurring during the recognition process. Some of the tax data files are even routed to staff working at home.

Once the data is verified and passes standard auditing procedures, the results are routed back to Boston where an electronic funds transfer is triggered and a refund is wired back to the mall. Two hours later, the couple returns to the booth, shows some identification and picks up the tax refund check.

FEASIBLE IMAGING

That's one likely scenario of how improved imaging and workflow technology can change the way state governments serve taxpayers in the not-so-distant future, according to Scott Blau, president of Datacap, a data and image capture software vendor based in White Plains, N.Y. Blau said near-instantaneous tax processing is now technically feasible, thanks to maturing technology that accurately captures images of documents, recognizes typed and hand-printed characters, helps workers in remote locations verify the data and routes it via workflow to document management and database systems.

Tax and revenue departments aren't the only ones to benefit from improved document imaging. New and better uses of the technology can be found in an expanding number of government agencies. They range from child support and welfare agencies to courtrooms, natural resource commissions and city clerks' offices. The applications are speeding up child support payments, opening up access to documents for workers in remote locations, helping clerks manage court caseloads and making it easier for the public to look up the minutes to yesterday's city council meeting.

The needs of these agencies have changed as well. Five years ago, most agencies used imaging systems to reduce the massive amounts of space dedicated to paper storage. Today, systems are aimed at boosting productivity, controlling costs and enhancing customer service. "Today's imaging applications have to do with better managing government workloads and keeping head counts under control," said Blau.

State and local governments are able to achieve their objectives, thanks to maturing document imaging and workflow technologies. Improved recognition and verification tools allow tax agencies to process millions of tax returns with a high degree of accuracy. Imaging software is better integrated with workflow and document management software, making it possible to create sophisticated case management applications for welfare, justice and labor agencies. Inexpensive CD-ROM storage and versatile full-text search and retrieval tools allow jurisdictions to operate document imaging applications on a shoestring budget.

When agency officials take the time to combine imaging technology with improved business processes, they are achieving solid, sometimes significant, returns on their investment. Document imaging technology is the cornerstone of New York state's new rapid refund tax processing program. Over a 10-year period, the state expects to save $100 million from automation. New York City's Office of the Comptroller has cut its backlog of legal claims against the city awaiting settlement by 50 percent, saving the city $2.5 million in additional litigation costs. Clark County, Nev., uses imaging and workflow in its business license applications and has boosted revenue collections to $200 million from $112 million. The list goes on.

LESS EXPENSIVE