A few years ago a bumper sticker appeared that went something like this: "Save trees - trim government."

Paperwork has long been the bane of civil service. Thankfully, recent years have seen an explosion of Web-based front-end applications aimed at making the public's contact with government agencies as painless as possible. Unfortunately, in many cases, information collected electronically up front was still being processed using paper intensive procedures. Back-end solutions were lagging behind.

Recent advances in integration and electronic forms development are allowing agencies to create, deploy and process electronic forms across an enterprise network, taking them a step closer to a paperless environment. Yet, despite these strides, paper forms still clutter many government offices. The Gartner Group reports that the average American worker still spends 2.5 hours per week filing, moving and fetching paper. Perhaps more surprising is that less than 1 percent of the paper documents kept in this country are captured electronically. "Paper-pushing," it seems, is a hard habit to break.

"We get tripped up over our own language because we keep talking about a 'paper trail,' but we need to start thinking in terms of a 'digi-trail' because there are transactions for which paper simply isn't necessary," said Paul Taylor, deputy director of the Information Services Division of Washington.

Form Fed

By conservative industry estimates, about 33 percent of the 30 billion original documents used annually in the United States are forms. The use of cost-cutting electronic forms has grown in recent years, particularly in government enterprises. However, in many cases, convoluted methods for moving e-forms through a system can negate their benefits and drive users back to old paper processes. Making a system efficient and user-friendly from end to end is critical.

That need has spawned some new approaches to e-forms deployment. One is an e-forms platform that allows users to organize many forms in a single Web-based point of access. Form designers can store their creations and users can fill out, sign and send the forms via standard Web browsers. The platform allows form designers to maintain an online inventory of forms, which can be updated instantly, and supports the use of intelligent e-forms that can perform database queries, calculations and automatic formatting.

Officials in Cabarrus County, N.C., have successfully implemented a system to create e-forms to replace paper travel vouchers, accident reports, purchase requests and personnel evaluations. The county, home to the greater Charlotte area, first tested the paperless waters a few years ago with an end-to-end electronic work-order processing system in its information services department.

Under the old paper-based system, all internal requests for service were processed using a four-part paper form handled eight times by as many as five people. It involved two databases and a separate log book. But with approximately 3,000 work order requests each year, managing the paper trail was putting a strain on the department's staff and budget. Today, users fill out work order requests using an electronic form, which is e-mailed to the IS department supervisor. After entering appropriate assignment and tracking data, the supervisor e-mails the request to staff assigned to do the work. At each step in the process, a Microsoft Access database is automatically updated to give the supervisor the status of the work.

The popularity of that system, coupled with increases in efficiency, prompted managers to take a hard look at some other forms-intensive processes as potential paperless candidates. Today, nearly 80 percent of the forms used in the information services, personnel and finance departments are electronic. In personnel, annual employee evaluations are prepared using an electronic form. The evaluation is sent to the appropriate manager for review and digital signature. Personnel data is extracted from the form and automatically input to the main personnel database located at the county's employment office.

"We're striving to become more paperless, and to get there we're