Documented Maturity: Improved Imaging Captures Government Attention

Advanced image processing technology comes at a time when government needs it the most.

by / March 31, 1998 0
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

Some of the biggest beneficiaries of improved imaging are the thousands of municipalities that haven't been able to use imaging because the good systems were too costly and less expensive choices just didn't work very well.

That situation has changed, thanks to the likes of innovative imaging vendors, such as LaserFiche, based in Torrance, Calif. Since the early 1990s, LaserFiche has been selling document imaging systems to a variety of governments, but primarily to the offices of city and county clerks in small jurisdictions. These government workers, who maintain record keeping for most of America's localities, need imaging to reduce paper storage costs and to meet greater demand for public access to government records, according to Chris Wacker, LaserFiche's vice president of marketing.

LaserFiche offers customers a software program with an easy-to-follow interface, a full-text search and retrieval capability, and inexpensive storage. The interface uses graphical images depicting index cards, file folders and filing cabinets, making it easy for the casual user to grasp how to organize and manage document images. Scanned documents are automatically recognized using optical character-recognition software.

The textual data is then used for indexing and full-text search and retrieval purposes, simplifying the task for clerks and the public who want to find documents quickly. Document images are stored on CD-ROMs, which are cheap and interchangeable, making it possible for city workers to share thousands of document images without costly networking or an expensive optical-disc jukebox.

LaserFiche has sold thousands of systems to the municipal government market in recent years, according to Wacker. He attributes growth in the municipal imaging market to improved nonproprietary software that has led to steady price-performance improvements for low- to mid-range imaging applications.

DOCUMENT INTEGRATION

For government agencies that require more than just document imaging, storage and retrieval -- yet don't need a high-end, production system for processing thousands or even millions of forms -- other choices exist. One is document management, which offers an environment for workers to juggle word processing files, faxes, photographs, spreadsheets, audio and video clips as well as document images. Document management systems offer capture, indexing and retrieval capabilities along with "library services" for checking in and out different versions of a document and, finally, sophisticated security features.

Document management used to suffer from standards problems, making it difficult to manage documents on a large scale as well as documents originating from different sources. However, the walls of incompatible standards are falling. Today's versions are true document management systems, having shed much of the limitations that existed with earlier solutions.

Another choice for government agencies is collaborative workflow. In its early existence, workflow, which automates the routing of documents and images from desktop to desktop, was reserved for high-volume, transaction-based processing applications. Not only was workflow software expensive, but it depended on a database management system to drive it, which limits its scope.

Today, vendors have married workflow to e-mail, lowering its cost and expanding its flexibility. Instead of using workflow for production applications, such as tax processing or unemployment compensation claims involving hundreds of workers, agencies can now use the software to route documents via e-mail between a handful of people for ad hoc applications.

These applications might involve having to fix a problem with an unemployment claim, an employer's wage report or a tax return. The volume of documents involved may be small, but the number of handoffs between staff to correct the problem can be quite high.

For years, Lotus has used imaging with its messaging and groupware product, Notes, to provide users with a simple e-mail-based workflow application. More recently, FileNet has introduced an e-mail/workflow product called Ensemble, and Keyfile has rolled out Keyflow. The newest kid on the block is Eastman Software's WMX. All three products work with Microsoft Exchange and Windows NT.es just didn't work very well.

That situation has changed, thanks to the likes of innovative imaging vendors, such as LaserFiche, based in Torrance, Calif. Since the early 1990s, LaserFiche has been selling document imaging systems to a variety of governments, but primarily to the offices of city and county clerks in small jurisdictions. These government workers, who maintain record keeping for most of America's localities, need imaging to reduce paper storage costs and to meet greater demand for public access to government records, according to Chris Wacker, LaserFiche's vice president of marketing.

LaserFiche offers customers a software program with an easy-to-follow interface, a full-text search and retrieval capability, and inexpensive storage. The interface uses graphical images depicting index cards, file folders and filing cabinets, making it easy for the casual user to grasp how to organize and manage document images. Scanned documents are automatically recognized using optical character-recognition software.

The textual data is then used for indexing and full-text search and retrieval purposes, simplifying the task for clerks and the public who want to find documents quickly. Document images are stored on CD-ROMs, which are cheap and interchangeable, making it possible for city workers to share thousands of document images without costly networking or an expensive optical-disc jukebox.

LaserFiche has sold thousands of systems to the municipal government market in recent years, according to Wacker. He attributes growth in the municipal imaging market to improved nonproprietary software that has led to steady price-performance improvements for low- to mid-range imaging applications.

DOCUMENT INTEGRATION

For government agencies that require more than just document imaging, storage and retrieval -- yet don't need a high-end, production system for processing thousands or even millions of forms -- other choices exist. One is document management, which offers an environment for workers to juggle word processing files, faxes, photographs, spreadsheets, audio and video clips as well as document images. Document management systems offer capture, indexing and retrieval capabilities along with "library services" for checking in and out different versions of a document and, finally, sophisticated security features.

Document management used to suffer from standards problems, making it difficult to manage documents on a large scale as well as documents originating from different sources. However, the walls of incompatible standards are falling. Today's versions are true document management systems, having shed much of the limitations that existed with earlier solutions.

Another choice for government agencies is collaborative workflow. In its early existence, workflow, which automates the routing of documents and images from desktop to desktop, was reserved for high-volume, transaction-based processing applications. Not only was workflow software expensive, but it depended on a database management system to drive it, which limits its scope.

Today, vendors have married workflow to e-mail, lowering its cost and expanding its flexibility. Instead of using workflow for production applications, such as tax processing or unemployment compensation claims involving hundreds of workers, agencies can now use the software to route documents via e-mail between a handful of people for ad hoc applications.

These applications might involve having to fix a problem with an unemployment claim, an employer's wage report or a tax return. The volume of documents involved may be small, but the number of handoffs between staff to correct the problem can be quite high.

For years, Lotus has used imaging with its messaging and groupware product, Notes, to provide users with a simple e-mail-based workflow application. More recently, FileNet has introduced an e-mail/workflow product called Ensemble, and Keyfile has rolled out Keyflow. The newest kid on the block is Eastman Software's WMX. All three products work with Microsoft Exchange and Windows NT.

Most recently, imaging firms, such as Eastman and FileNet, have merged collaborative workflow with document management and imaging to create a truly integrated environment for documents of all types. Such an environment could prove beneficial for government agencies, believes John Collins, Eastman's director of state and local government business development. He pointed out that workers will find it easier to manage work and business processes while taking advantage of features under one roof that can help gather, organize, manage and share complex sets of information. For example, child support workers will be able to store, track and manage faxed images of correspondence, scanned images of check receipts and word processing files relating to their cases from a single folder and using one interface.

With an increase in the data gathering and reporting requirements that welfare reform has imposed on states (and counties that actually perform welfare services) tracking, routing and managing different types of documents will become more important than ever.

ORGANIZATIONAL MEMORY

One obstacle to the success of document imaging in government has been business process reengineering (BPR). Imaging, perhaps more than other automation efforts, can have a major impact on traditional paper-based work processes. Imaging analysts and consultants have often staked the success of an imaging application on the degree to which tasks and processes were reengineered to take advantage of the technology. The more traditional tasks and positions that were eliminated, the better the result, they reasoned.

Not surprisingly, many agencies have shied away from reengineering, fearing a backlash from workers would prove too disruptive. Agencies that did pursue business process reengineering often did so too aggressively, accepting the belief that all change had to be right. "Consultants may be right, in a sense about using BPR to change business processes," said Datacap's Blau, "but they are not always practical about it."

Blau believes BPR is about understanding why an organization does things the way it does, rather than just learning how things are done to change them. "The problem with many technology-oriented solutions that call for BPR is that they leave out a full understanding of why workers do things a certain way. I believe you should retain that organizational memory."

Traditional processes may appear inefficient, according to Blau, but there's a reason why. "The process isn't inefficient on purpose," he said. It follows then that opportunities exist for minor process reengineering. "It's more practical to bring in a new technology, keep the old procedures, but just smooth out the rough edges," explained Blau. "The main point about BPR is that it cannot be technology driven. It has to be knowledge driven: Why do people do things this way; not, how do they do them?"

Blau recommended that agencies wishing to reengineer with imaging look for where they can have an impact on 80 percent of the processes, not 100 percent. Any BPR project should be introduced in phases, so the kinks in one area can be worked out before moving on. Finally, he recommends getting a second opinion. "Review the practicality of the consultant's advice," Blau cautioned. "What's needed is not always new technology but an improvement in a process. Technology should always follow."

Blau acknowledged that government agencies have a hard time approaching BPR because they make decisions by committee. Turf battles and power plays can quickly dilute the best-intended plans when hashed out by committee. But agencies under bold leadership are able to improve processes with imaging and take advantage of innovations.

With heavy investment in Internet technology, imaging vendors of all types are rapidly introducing new products that put imaging on the World Wide Web along with forms processing, workflow and document management. Document imaging may have become more mature, but it's about to become more exciting as well.

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