Enterprise Computing: Agencies Rethink Business Practices For Better Returns

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By Jon William Toigo

Most information technology integrators know that they can't sell IT solutions unless they persuasively demonstrate for their clients ? both public and private ? the business value proposition. Ideally, this proposition consists of cost savings, risk reduction and business process improvement.

In the past, the first two components tended to dominate sales and marketing efforts. But the statement of how the new technology would improve existing business processes or add new capabilities often was expressed, if at all, in vague terms. Vendors were reluctant to guarantee measurable results.

While government agencies continue to make many of their day-to-day purchases of IT software and hardware based solely upon cost- and risk-reduction objectives, their enterprise-level purchases tend to be more strategic in scope. Consequently, systems integrators also must demonstrate business process improvements to win lucrative, government contract awards.

This emphasis on improved business processes can be seen in a number of recent projects involving U.S. federal agencies.According to Kevin Norris, account manager within the E-Government Division of Ciber Inc., a McLean, Va.-based integrator, the strategic objectives of the project he was leading at the U.S. Postal Service were clear from the outset. For more than a decade, the USPS had been seeking a way to improve its processes for managing the nearly 2 billion pounds of mail shipped annually using commercial airlines and other third-party providers.

USPS had considered approaches from vendors over the years before selecting Ciber in 1998. That decision came in part because the value proposition offered by other vendors was incomplete, Norris said. "[USPS'] question wasn't 'Will it work?' but 'Will it be used?' " he noted.

Clayton Bonnell, manager of International Operations at USPS, confirmed that the selection of Ciber followed a lengthy effort to decide upon a strategy for facilitating the work of USPS ramp clerks and administrators. Tasked with ensuring that the mail is handled correctly by third-party carriers, who are contracted by USPS to augment its own capabilities for transporting parcels and mail from city to city and internationally, these USPS personnel typically relied upon paper forms to report "incidents" that involve mishandling of shipments.

"Whenever you ship freight via commercial carriers, there are any number of things that can go wrong," Bonnell said. "Airplanes have mechanical problems that result in canceled flights. In some cases, baggage and other freight, including the mail, gets bumped." He likened the role of USPS ramp clerks to that of a concierge who aids air travelers who have missed a scheduled flight.

 "When carrier issues affect the mail, the ramp clerk must ensure that the mail gets to where it needs to go and that the incident is documented so it can be adjudicated," Bonnell said.

In 1998, the USPS began looking for technology to document incidents more efficiently. Officials had purchased port-able scanners for letter carriers so they could track the delivery of priority mail and other mail product deliveries. However, these mail data collection devices (MDCDs), would not work for ramp clerks because they needed alphanumeric data entry capabilities in addition to numeric scanning to capture the details of an incident, said Bonnell.

Symbol Technologies Inc., Holtsville, N.Y., which had provided the original MDCD, responded with a design for another handheld unit to meet the needs of the ramp clerks. Based upon Palm Computing's Palm III Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), the SPT 1700 integrated laser-scanning capabilities with a key data entry capability to provide a portable, useful device for data collection. But the USPS wanted more, Bonnell said, a solution that would improve the efficiency and efficacy of the entire incident reporting and adjudication process.

Ciber, which was working on site on another system, proposed capturing the ramp clerk data using the handheld device and then passing it via an existing Ethernet network to a central repository, according to Norris. The database then could be Web-enabled and accessed by ramp clerks and administrators both to monitor adjudication status and results, and to analyze for information useful to future planning and decision-making.

Ciber's approach aligned with the strategic business value that USPS was seeking in a solution, Norris said. In October 1998, Ciber was hired to "do a proof of concept," said Bonnell, and by Christmas 1998, the viability of the solution was verified.

Ciber took six months, through July 1999, to perform multiple iterations of the Web site, Bonnell said. User testing and piloting were extensive to ensure that clerks and administrators were getting what they needed from the site. In the end, a comprehensive system for managing the complete process ? "From the point where local folks meet with airline representatives to document incidents, to local adjudication, to regional adjudication, through a national appeals process," he said ? was available online.

The system, which has been brought online in increments since the summer of 1999, already has reduced incident data collection from three hours per incident to 15 minutes per incident, according to
Norris. While only 50 to 80 devices
have been deployed to ramp clerks to
date, covering just a few international airports, that number will rise over time to about 1,000 devices, as USPS budgets permit.

Based on results seen to date, Bonnell anticipated that improved efficiencies would yield a 100-percent return on investment within one year. "We have improved the efficiency of the process, which involved passing a lot of paper around. This alone has resulted in cost savings," he said.

Other advantages of the solution are more far-reaching. One is the ability of ramp clerks to see the results of their work. "They used to get the feeling that nothing was being done about the reports they were writing up," he said. Now, they can see how what they are doing makes a difference. They can track an incident through the Web site to completion."

The system also delivers for the first time the quality of data required for serious analysis and modeling activity, Bonnell said. "We will be able to see what places are most difficult for delivery."

Finally, Bonnell said, USPS has begun to receive inquiries "from other postal administrations, especially in Caribbean countries and a few European countries" about its innovative system. "We are planning to extend our application to military base airports around the world, as well as to embassies," he said, pleased that the strategic approach has earned USPS International Operations a reputation as a visionary leader in the field.Like the USPS, a stated objective of IT management at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is to achieve business process improvements ? especially in the area of customer service ? through technological innovation.

"FDIC's interest in Internet-based solutions, in fact all of the strategic concepts of FDIC Chief Information Officer Don Demitros, come down to enabling improved customer access. Saving money is further down on their list of priorities," said Ellen Glover, president and chief operating officer with McLean, Va.-based integrator ATS Inc.

One example is the Electronic Deposit Insurance Estimator (EDIE), fielded by the agency with the assistance of ATS, said Glover, who has worked on various FDIC projects since 1992.

In 1998, the FDIC sought to provide an easy-to-use, Web-based facility that would enable customers ? including banking institutions and their account holders ? to estimate the effective coverage afforded to their deposit accounts through FDIC programs. While it seemed a straightforward requirement, the solution proved more daunting.

FDIC insures depositor accounts of member financial institutions up to $100,000. However, there are several ways accounts may be held (e.g., individual, joint, in trust for, payable on death, etc.) and various rules that govern insurance coverage can be difficult to interpret. Moreover, estimating the effective coverage for two or more accounts held at the same institution was a complicated task for the consumer, and commonly resulted in calls to the corporation's Customer Service Hotline.

Despite the complexities, FDIC wanted EDIE to be a simple way for account holders to estimate the coverage provided for the most common types of accounts. This objective also was made more complex by the reluctance of the FDIC to disclose any account information in back-end financial systems, according to Linda Abood, an FDIC supervisory computer specialist.

FDIC tapped ATS to build a solution that met these criteria by late 1998. ATS reviewed the existing business process. Using information from FDIC call centers, the company created a forms-based tool for collecting account details and generated business rules used by FDIC to calculate insurance coverages.

The prototype was tested with the assistance of a senior citizens' organization, whose input resulted in the complete replacement of EDIE's user interface with a more streamlined approach.

The first version of EDIE was made available to the public in late 1998, said Abood, but changes in certain insurance rules resulted in a significant update in April 1999. At heart, the system is based upon Microsoft Internet information Server and Active Server Pages Version 2.0. Using Active Server Pages enables the data entered by EDIE users to be temporarily stored without requiring a back-end database. This limited the number of administrative personnel required to support the system and muted any concern about data privacy.

The new tool's reception went well, Abood said. The system did not eliminate the FDIC hotline, which still fields calls about very complicated accounts as well as the inquiries of consumers who simply prefer "the human touch." For those 100-plus users who daily use EDIE, rather than FDIC call centers, the system clearly addresses their needs, Abood said.

Glover cited EDIE as a solution that is not rationalized on the basis of cost savings or risk reduction alone. Its value is in the way that it leverages a legacy process and automates it to achieve the strategic goal of improved customer service. Ultimately, she said, the payoff of EDIE would be felt in dollars as well.

"The application represents a low cost to FDIC. Secondarily, one can anticipate that it will yield some cost savings in staffing. When you think about how budgets are being reduced in government year after year, EDIE may eventually enable the FDIC to continue to provide good service despite cutbacks in staff."Jeff Frithsen says he truly believes improved processes for accessing information have strategic value for an organization, whether in the context of customer service or in the management of scientific information. As an information management specialist with the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Research and Development in Washington, Frithsen views improvements in the automation of information access as synonymous with the core business processes of EPA and its partners.

Frithsen illustrated his view with an example, "The National Center for Environmental Assessment develops risk assessments covering the ecology as well as humans. An environmental assessment is a complex, multidisciplinary undertaking that tries to deal with many things at once. If you are performing an assessment regarding Chesapeake Bay, you will want to look at reports that have studied the water quality of the bay as well as data collected on sediment layers, and perhaps the land surrounding the bay. That may involve a lot of data with very different temporal and spatial viewpoints.

"The challenge is to combine sets of information, to bring together big-scale and small-scale data so it can be used by multiple investigators who are geographically dispersed and who may represent different government entities."

Since 1993, according to Victor Nahlous, technical manager with Oracle Corp.'s government consulting group in Reston, Va., the EPA has been trying to meet the requirements outlined in Frithsen's example through the application of technology.

"[EPA] started using flat file databases in 1997, then contracted with a small firm to try to create a client-server solution [for inventorying data sets generated both by the EPA and its partners so they could be accessed for assessments.]" Confronted with numerous obstacles, such as how to handle data sets stored in a variety of formats, Nahlous said, "they turned to us for assistance in 1998."

Frithsen said the Environmental Information Management System (EIMS), built with Oracle's help, provided the means to combine other database inventories such as the Global Information Locator Service. The service tracks systems deployed within the EPA, and the Environmental Data Registry, which tracks data elements in order to bring consistency to agency regulatory databases by providing common names for data elements.

EIMS is a metadata repository that provides a searchable inventory of EPA research ? including data sets, products, models, sound files, multimedia files, maps, etc. Searches conducted at the EIMS Web site (www.epa.gov/eims) result in listings that identify the matching research material, its originator, a descriptive abstract, the system that contains the data, and depending on availability, a clickable URL link to data.

EIMS is a metadata-based inventory that will, in time, enable the "integration of multiple forms of data so they can be made to work with tools for analysis," Frithsen said. It is a strategic foundation for an information management system that "will ultimately enable scientists at EPA and its partner organizations to concentrate more on science and less on data normalization and management."

In building the metadata repository, Frithsen noted, an incremental, grass-roots approach has been preferred. He said the strategy involved "getting the scientists to use the tool to find information ? step one ? then to get them to use the same system to add their products." The strategy appears to be working, according to Frithsen, as several program offices and four of EPA's 10 operating regions already are participating in EIMS with their data sets.

Web-based forms are used to register research. Data sets have been the
early targets for registration, but Nahlous noted that graphical information system maps will be added to EIMS beginning in June. Entries are encouraged early and often.

Preliminary details of ongoing research can be submitted by investigators and field scientists, as can draft studies not ready for public release. A system of secure log-ins has been developed to ensure that research can be shared among EPA insiders without the data being exposed to the public. However, much of the existing inventory is "mature research" and is available for download and review by anyone interested in research conducted by EPA.

The EIMS is a collaborative effort both of EPA offices and contractors. While Oracle's development team is guiding software development, SRA International Inc., Fairfax, Va., is responsible for user interaction and planning and supports the effort directly and through its subcontractor, Technology Planning and Management Corp., Durham, N.C., which is responsible with migrating data into the Oracle database format.

Public access servers are overseen by contractor Lockheed Martin Corp., Bethesda, Md., at EPA's data center facilities in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Frithsen described the supervision of the work as a mixture of contract types.

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