Imagings Evolution

While the volume of electronic documents in government continues to grow, the need for document imaging remains strong.

by / July 17, 2001
Once upon a time, document imaging was one of technologys most powerful allies in the battle to change the archaic world of paper-based information. Using a scanner and optical discs capable of mass storage, imaging provided a new method for processing information without the pain of actually changing the information on the paper itself. Workers could easily view on their computers documents that were once tucked away in filing cabinets. With the addition of workflow software, business processes could be rearranged, allowing many workers to perform tasks simultaneously, while other, redundant tasks could be eliminated completely.

Today, with so much information created in different formats -- video, audio, word processing files, PDF documents and Web pages -- the scanned paper document has been reduced to a supporting role. "Although theres a lot of activity in deploying imaging to solve government business systems, much of it is embedded in larger database systems," said Terry Menta, partner with Imerge Consulting, an imaging consulting firm. Take a look at an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, a customer relationship management (CRM) application or a collaborative solution using Lotus Notes and youll find document imaging somewhere in the process, though not necessarily acting as the central application.

But Menta and other imaging experts arent about to announce the death of imaging just yet. "Its evolving, not dying," explained Larry Den, vice president of information technology at Vredenburg, a Reston, Va.-based provider of electronic document management systems. The scanning, storing and retrieving of document images is just one small part of a vast new area known as content management, according to Den. "Document imaging is like the shell on an egg," he said. "Its just the thin outer shell of a vast field of content that can include data in all sorts of formats."

Those formats include audio recordings of city council meetings, video clips of environmental hearings, a wide assortment of electronic documents and interactive forms for government transactions, all of which are kept up to date through document management technology and then assigned tasks and routed to the appropriate personnel by workflow software.

Until recently, most state and local governments had little incentive to manage all this content in a coherent way. Imaging was viewed as a technology that best served a department or office by digitizing specific paper documents that had to be processed, such as land titles, tax documents or workers insurance claims. But e-government is forcing states and localities to re-examine how they process information and to look for the best solutions that will allow them to merge
disparate systems into a quasi-enterprise application. "Imaging systems used to be departmentalized in government," said Brian Mandel, principal of North American e-workflow and imaging at Unisys Corp. "Now we see a trend toward enterprise [imaging] applications where information is being exchanged between agencies for the first time."

That trend, in turn, has set off a resurgence of interest in document imaging. Whats happened, according to Mandel, is that the typical government file has grown to include electronic documents. "But the government worker also wants access to information in the file that may still reside on paper. So governments are finding they need to scan that as well. As a result, the scanning of documents is going to continue to grow."

Enterprising Plans

You dont have to look far to see signs of whats happening with imaging in the public sector. In New York, the states Disability Determination Service has launched an electronic claims processing program in conjunction with the Social Security Administration. The project will test the practicality of adjudicating disability claims across different levels of government and state boundaries. Vredenburg and Eastman Software built the system, which was launched in April.

Miami-Dade County, Fla., is planning to develop a series of imaging applications that will grow horizontally across departments. The county recently launched pilot projects in the Department of Environmental Resources, the Employee Relations Department and the Buildings Department using Identitechs FYI software for imaging, document management, electronic forms and workflow. The goal, said Randy Witt, the countys CIO, is to take steps that reduce the countys 60-year legacy of paper documents.

Beyond that, the county wants to grow enterprise applications, and that calls for systems with the kind of infrastructure that can support large county departments and include remote access. Because each department has its own business process, the plan is to pick products best suited for its purposes and then standardize within the department.

"It makes sense to have a standard imaging architecture within affinity groups in government," said Menta, who classified the key groups in local government as health and human services, law and justice, land parcels and general administration. "Many CIOs city managers and county managers would prefer to have one standard for imaging throughout the jurisdiction for a number of reasons, including ease of cross-training," he added. But in reality, theres little reason for these groups to exchange information between each other, argued Menta, so its not worth the time and expense of adopting one standard.

One reason affinity-group imaging works is that vendors have done a decent job developing solutions that address particular needs, such as applications for processing land parcels, court documents, police records or tax collection. These special systems often do a stellar job at processing documents and content within the specialized area, but would be a mediocre or poor fit in unrelated areas of government. Trying to force one standard on these different departments, with different processes, wont work.

Scanning the Web

In addition to tackling enterprise imaging, state and local governments are beginning to use the Internet to expand imaging into a number of areas, most notably public access. Check out any number of Web sites for county recorders of deeds and you will be able to pull up scanned land and title documents. Residents of Martinsville, Va., can view the documents of city council agendas, codes and meeting minutes using their Web browsers. The images are available through WebLink, a scan-to-Web software from Laserfiche. In Miami-Dade, CIO Witt said the public will have access to certain documents via the Web once the countys imaging system is fully operational.

The Internet can also serve as the infrastructure for improving internal accessibility to documents. Thats the case at North Carolinas Department of State Treasurer (DST), which serves as the states banker. Each year, DST processes 23 million checks -- known as warrants -- and distributes them to the 700 state agencies that hold accounts with DST.

Once the system operated primarily on paper and microfilm. The warrants were processed through the Federal Reserve Bank in Charlotte and turned over to DST for microfilming. As many as 230,000 warrants would be processed on a given day, and obtaining a copy of a warrant was a labor-intensive operation.

Today, however, DST doesnt receive a single warrant. Working with the Federal Reserve Bank and Unisys Corp., DST crafted a system where warrants are scanned at the Fed, the images are stored on tape cartridges and turned over to DST the next day. The images are loaded and maintained on the agencys imaging system for storage and retrieval. State agency staff who want to see an image of a warrant can access the images with their Web browsers using an ID and password.

The $1.2 million imaging system has affected DST and state agencies in a number of ways, according to Robert Newton, DSTs IT director. "We have been able to reduce costs by eliminating certain positions and have greatly simplified the life of workers who no longer have to manually search and retrieve a single warrant from 23 million documents."

DST has saved additional time and money by eliminating the need for its 15-year-old check-scanning machine.

Processing Content

DSTs system is primarily for storage and retrieval, which is still a major concern for many government agencies. Other state and local imaging applications have added workflow to their imaging systems to automate the linear sequence of document processing in a bureaucracy. But electronic government is changing certain values and relationships between government and its constituents, creating the need for more flexibility and improved services.

This shift is forcing governments to come up with more flexible, interactive and coordinated work processes, using technology that is much more dynamic and modular. Standard document imaging and workflow just doesnt do the entire job. Traditional imaging companies, such as FileNet, Unisys and IBM, are remaking themselves into businesses that provide tools for managing electronic processes and content.

For example, a state transportation agency has to manage photos, applications, renewal forms and databases for its motor vehicle division, large-scale engineering drawings, construction contracts and databases of information for its engineering division and bids and supplier catalogs for its procurement department. It may also have to provide interfaces to the states criminal justice agency for stolen vehicle identification and data for the motor voter program.

When all these processes are paper driven, theres little that can be done to reengineer the business. But combine the power of the Internet with document technologies, including imaging and workflow, and add enterprise business applications, such as ERP and CRM, and new capabilities begin to emerge.

But as state and local governments explore this change in the process that allows agencies to interact with their constituents in more dynamic ways, its important they step back and take the time to understand the purpose of the documents that will be used in such a system.

"The obstacle to successful, large-scale implementation of imaging is understanding which documents are of high value, which ones are good candidates for imaging and which ones are better candidates as an electronic document for direct exchange from computer to computer," said Menta. "You have to understand the content of the document, the transaction of the document, who the document comes from and for whom its intended."
Tod Newcombe Features Editor