Governments Use Document Imaging to Manage Paper Documents

Document imaging systems stand ready to integrate hard copy into the digital government enterprise.

by / August 25, 2008

Wasn't paper supposed to go away? Isn't this the era of digital government? Then why are so many governments scanning pages into document imaging systems?

Some examples:

  • In March, the National Archives and Records Administration awarded a $2.1 million contract for a solution to scan and process millions of government documents.
  • The Indiana Department of Environmental Management recently used a service bureau to scan archives into a virtual file cabinet, providing online access to more than 9 million documents.
  • Austin, Texas, implemented document imaging in two city departments since 2006 and is eyeing further applications.

Despite the e-government trend and the move toward enterprisewide information systems, there's still no end of paper in the public sector. Between government's historical archives and the myriad forms used to transact business, paper management is still a major challenge.

Many use document imaging systems to close the gap between hard copy and digital business processes.

Document imaging captures electronic copies of pages and provides tools for indexing, storing and retrieving them.

It allows users to manage workflow, ensuring employees handle documents according to established protocols.

Also, this technology may automatically apply records management rules, such as how long different document categories must be stored and when to purge them.

Document imaging is a subset of document management, a category that also includes documents that are "born digital"- word processing files, spreadsheets, e-mails and the like. Document management, in turn, is a subset of content management, which also may encompass photographs, videos, voicemail messages and other digital materials.

Document imaging fell out of favor around 2000, said Ralph Gammon, editor of Document Imaging Report, an industry newsletter published in Erie, Pa. "Everyone figured the electronic processes were going to wipe out paper." But that never happened. One possible reason, he said, is that printers kept getting faster and cheaper, making it easy to print just about anything.

"There are companies, and probably government agencies too, that will print out every e-mail they get and put it into a binder or a notebook," said Bob Zagami, general manager for the New England region of DataBank, in the company's Canton, Mass., facility. Zagami also serves as chairman of the board of directors of AIIM International, an industry association focused on enterprise content management.

Digital government initiatives have been hugely successful, said Dan Nore, director of the federal sales team at Kofax, a vendor of document management systems. "I just think that our expectations with respect to paper have been unrealistic," Nore said. Government activities will continue to require paper, and governments must learn to accommodate it within the e-government enterprise, he said.

Turnaround Documents
Although many more documents these days are born digital, paper dominates in two large government areas, making them strong targets for digital imaging systems, said Dan Elam, a managing director at the Gimmal Group, a document management consultancy. The first area covers functions that rely on "turnaround documents"- forms governments send out for people to complete and return. "Particularly in the government world, we realize that not everyone has access to a computer and not everyone is technology-savvy. So we end up using paper as a lowest common denominator to communicate with a lot of external people," Elam said.

The second major application for document imaging involves making old historical records easy to manage and retrieve, he said.

Vital records, tax collection, integrating documents with GIS data and any kind of licensing or permitting are excellent areas to consider for document imaging systems, said Zagami.

Records management is a major driver on the federal level, Elam said. In state governments, tax processing and child welfare are two big applications. Also, many states use document imaging to manage case files for environmental management, welfare and other functions. 

Local governments put the technology to a broad collection of uses, he said. Many scan notes from board meetings to make them available to the public in electronic form. "Land records are still white-hot," he added.

Many of these applications fall into the storage and retrieval category, replacing the physical filing system with an electronic one and perhaps adding a workflow component. When a system includes optical character recognition (OCR) or intelligent character recognition, an organization also can use it to extract data from documents.

OCR provides a way to pluck data from unstructured documents without any work at a keyboard. In this case, the scanned image becomes more than a picture of a page; it becomes a source that can populate records in a database. "In legal cases, sometimes people scan all the documents - they full-text OCR everything - which enables you to do a full-text search on hundreds of documents," Gammon said. And the U.S. Census Bureau is using OCR to capture data from forms automatically, he said.

Some newer systems can even locate and capture data from a series of forms with different layouts, Gammon said. "One of the big trends is people doing automated data capture off invoices, for example."

Once an image is scanned into many of the newer systems, authorized users can redact information, such as Social Security numbers, so it can't be viewed onscreen. Users also can annotate documents. "We have yellow electronic notes and stamps that you can overlay on the document image," Zagami said. The system attaches redactions and annotations to separate information layers, leaving the underlying document unchanged, he said.

Everyone Can Scan
Another trend, distributed data capture, arose from the advent of the inexpensive multifunction peripheral (MFP), which integrates a photocopier, printer, fax machine and scanner in a single unit. "In another year or two, every front office is going to have a scan capability," said Sameer Samat, executive vice president of products at Kofax, "and so that barrier to using that digitization capability is gone."

With an MFP on hand, nonspecialists working in a front office, such as a department of motor vehicles, can scan paper immediately rather than collecting pages to send to a central scanning facility. The office simply needs the right software, that's also easy to use, to turn the MFP into the front end of a digital imaging system, Samat said.

A second technology that's making document imaging more accessible is Microsoft's SharePoint Server, part of the Office Suite. Microsoft markets SharePoint as a content management system, and some organizations are starting to use it as such on a departmental basis, Gammon said.

"If CIOs already have SharePoint in the office, they may already have the foundation of a document management system," he said. "It's just going to take some professional service work and maybe some other products to build on top of it."

Since not all agencies want to buy or build document imaging systems, the use of software as a service is starting to make inroads, particularly for local governments, Elam said. "We've seen a lot of them look to being able to say, 'I don't want to spend all this money buying servers and hiring people and building these things. I just want to write a check.'"

Other governments outsource the entire job of document imaging and management to service bureaus. "The fastest-growing part of our industry today is Web-hosted storage and retrieval," said Zagami. "We pick up the documents, we scan them, we index them and we host them, providing secure access via the Web 24/7 to authorized users."

Austin Gets its Feet Wet
Document imaging systems may offer a broad range of advanced options, but Austin, Texas, is wading into the technology bit by bit. Having implemented its electronic document imaging systems in the City Clerk's Office and the Office of Vital Records, city officials are trying to determine which department should get the technology next. "We have 27 departments in the city, so naturally you can't do them all at one time," said Peter Collins, the city's then-CIO.

Austin offers access to scanned documents through its Online Document Search utility at the Web site.

The city purchased its system from Open Text Corp. of Lincolnshire, Ill. Before the implementation, many of the city clerk's records already were stored in a document imaging system. Austin replaced the system because the vendor wasn't supporting it anymore, Collins said. The city was able to transfer some images from one system to the other; it had to rescan other pages to get quality images.

Converting paper into an electronic format, however, is only part of the reason for implementing a document imaging system, Collins said. "It's also looking at the processes within that area and saying, 'Can we improve it?' It's all workflow analysis."

Collins said he hopes to eventually use the system to manage e-mails and other digital documents too.

Society isn't quite ready to go entirely paperless, Collins said. In the past, that was partly due to the high costs of hardware and memory, but that's starting to change, he said. "I think now we're probably emerging into an era where we are going to organically migrate to a paperless society."

Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
Platforms & Programs