Matcom helps NIST go paperless
Electronic forms streamline workflow
- By Joab Jackson
- Oct 16, 2002
Replacing paper forms with electronic ones doesn't merely mean mocking up a cyberspace replica of the paper version -- not if an agency wants to truly realize the productivity gains of e-records.What is needed is a way to verify that people submitting the forms are who they say they are. It also requires modeling the agency's internal workflow to ensure forms get to the right people. So when the National Institute of Standards and Technology tapped Matcom International Corp., Alexandria, Va., to develop electronic versions of 350 of the agency's internal forms, the company assembled a solution that integrated public key infrastructure software from Entrust Inc., Addison, Texas, with business process management software from HandySoft Corp., Vienna, Va.With the new system, called e-Approval, NIST is finding that going electronic not only saves worker time, but allows for greater accountability, said those who worked on the project. It also puts them ahead of the curve for meeting the October 2003 deadline of the Government Paperwork Elimination Act."We wanted the ability to conduct routine business electronically," said Kevin Inman, program manager for the project. Like all government agencies, NIST has its share of forms that employees have to track down, fill out and send or carry to the appropriate parties, stopping off for supervisor signatures along the way. The agency assumed its personnel could save some time if such responsibilities were carried out online and the resulting paperwork routed automatically through the network.Some forms, such as business travel reimbursements, were already handled by commercial software packages. But NIST wanted to collect many of the other forms it used -- purchasing requisitions or requests for leave, training or having keys reproduced -- into one Web-based repository, which could be accessed via a Web browser. And also like other agencies, NIST must comply with the paperwork elimination act. Signed into law October 1998, the act requires agencies, wherever possible, to keep records in electronic form as well as offer its services to citizens and businesses via electronic means when feasible. The paperwork elimination act "sounds like a great idea, but it is very complicated. There is so much regulation and associated rules and guidance," said Lori Renner, the Matcom program manager for the project. "What NIST wanted to do was start a pilot project to see if the technologies were mature enough."Evidently they pass muster. Inman said he couldn't comment on Matcom or any of the software being used, because as a policy setter for standards, NIST must remain impartial. However, the project, which was commissioned as a pilot in 1999, is being rolled out to 3,500 NIST personnel under a five-year contract, valued at up to $16 million, awarded in March to Matcom. Matcom chose HandySoft's BizFlow software for the project because it has a workflow engine that can define routing rules for forms moving among offices."HandySoft has a lot of flexibility to build more complicated workflows," Renner said. The software also allowed Matcom to design forms with the look and feel of those required by NIST's forms office. On the PKI front, Entrust was one of the few companies to offer a standalone PKI system, which NIST wanted for security reasons. It also met Federal Information Processing Standards, or FIPS-140, for encryption software."It was a nice fit for what NIST wanted to do, [and] gave them a growth path for things they would like to do in the future," Renner said.For NIST, the return on investment that comes from going electronic is in the improved efficiency it offers, Renner said.Personnel can track where the form is as it travels from desk to desk. The agency can see how much and how quickly work moves through the offices. As a result, staff adjustments can be made and obstacles removed."It is not always obvious where the bottlenecks are. From one perspective, it may seem to be in one place; in actuality, it may be someplace else," Renner said. "Now it's all documented."Although the project is scheduled to be finished in December, e-Approval also establishes an infrastructure that can be leveraged for more advanced services that can be implemented later."What we are looking at now is how to enhance and build on the infrastructure we have," Renner said.One such enhancement is records management, Renner said. The National Archives and Records Administration has issued preliminary guidance as to what should be preserved as a record. But further clarifications on how long documents need to be kept are needed, she said. When they are issued, NIST can piggyback a record keeping system on e-Approval.E-Approval also sets the stage for the paperwork elimination act. For instance, data that citizens have submitted through NIST's external Web pages can be processed internally through the system, Inman said. For Matcom, the NIST work provides a calling card for future paperwork elimination work. "We have a successful base project in the NIST work, and that gives us credibility," said Lou Ray, president of Matcom. *Staff Writer Joab Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lori Renner, project manager for Matcom
Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.