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.
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 focusing on integration," said Jean Kennedy, information technology director of Cabarrus County. "We're trying to make these types of forms available countywide."
Experts agree that the key to successful e-form deployment lies in being able to integrate their use in applications across the enterprise, incorporating the areas of forms processing, digital signatures, expense tracking and archiving.
The Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) is employing e-forms to handle a host of enterprise-wide administrative functions ranging from processing travel payment vouchers to tracking print shop requisitions. From a Web-based form warehouse, employees can select, fill out and file forms. Data from purchase requisitions is automatically input to the appropriate database. The interface between users and the department's Oracle database is handled using Microsoft's Remote Data Services (RDS) concept, which, using ActiveX controls, handles communication between the Web server and the database and updates the original data when users enter changes from a standard Web browser. At the conclusion of the workflow, completed forms and any attachments are converted to PDF format and stored in the department's document management system.
The goal, according to Cindy Wade, project manager for KDOT's records and workflow management group, is ultimately to develop an electronic process where front-end applications and internal workflow can be seamlessly integrated to cut down the number of steps required to complete a forms-related task.
"The key benefits are improved performance and better turn-around times on processes," Wade said of the department's e-forms implementation effort. "And it allows processes initiated by the public to be dropped into the workflow."
To that end, the department is developing a system that will allow the public to electronically file applications for access permits to KDOT rights-of-way. The system, planned for rollout late next year, will extract data from e-forms filed online for input to an internal workflow system that will electronically route applications for processing and approval using e-signatures. Approval notification will be sent to applicants via e-mail at the completion of the workflow.
Despite the availability of technology and numerous successful case studies, the migration to paperless processes has been met with some resistance. History has shown that quantum leaps in technology have typically been followed by periods of social adjustment, as users slowly learn to accept the new technology and integrate it into their culture. Similarly, government officials have had to cope with the cultural acceptance of new technology applications, not only by constituents but also by staff, many of whom cut their teeth in government service on decades-old paper processes.
"There's no easy way to get over that initial hump of reluctance," Kennedy said. "You just have to be prepared to give people the time to get used to it, and once they see the benefit, they'll embrace it."
In Kansas, transportation officials found that one of the biggest hurdles was getting staff to feel comfortable with the concept of putting their signature into an electronic document. Initially, despite strict security controls by system administrators, many were concerned about the department's ability to keep signatures safe.
"It took some time to develop a comfort level there," noted KDOT's Wade. "We found that over time, as staff saw upper level managers regularly using the forms with success, the comfort level increased."
Some agencies have learned that beyond providing technical training for new paperless processes, they must also invest time in broader educational initiatives designed to erase the inherent mistrust of bits and bytes.
Washington state, an acknowledged pioneer in the implementation of digital government, realized early on that effective implementation would require fundamental cultural changes behind cubicle walls. To that end, the state put line managers and IT supervisors from two dozen state agencies through its Digital Government Applications Academy, where staff worked together and with private-sector experts to define the state's approach to advanced electronic forms. Case studies were developed which ultimately became a template for other agencies to follow.
"In many cases, what we found was that trepidation over new electronic initiatives was the result of simply not understanding the process," said Washington's Taylor. "We found that a better understanding led to more comfort with the issues, so that managers were going back to their departments as active proponents of the technology."
A Byte Closer
Last year's passage of legislation recognizing digital signatures removed one of the biggest obstacles to paperless government: the need for "wet signatures" on documents to make them legally binding. However, many agencies may find themselves unprepared to tackle the challenge of reviewing or overhauling statutes and regulations to make them e-friendly.
"An unfortunate place you can find yourself in is to have a thoroughly electronic process end to end and then have to print out the product for some statutory reason," Taylor said. "We have legislation and agency rules that represent the best thinking at the time they were created, but they were created at a time when paper was the dominant way of doing things. That needs to change."
Despite the inertia of government, most government officials believe the need for paperless processes, coupled with continued advances in technology, will ultimately break down any remaining legislative barriers.
"Five years from now there will be an expectation that government lose the paper and over time there may have to be legislative change," noted Taylor. "The public's business can be done in a way that has integrity without killing forests worth of paper."
Tom Byerly is an Elk Grove, Calif.-based engineer and writer.