Imaging Integral Part of a Total E-Solution
Imaging Integral Part of a Total E-Solution<@VM>Toward a Paperless Society<@VM>Not as Easy as It Sounds<@VM>Reaching for an Edge
By Heather Hayes
With the general public finally beginning to feel comfortable with Web-based electronic commerce, federal agencies are ramping up their efforts to provide a breed of e-government applications known as "constituent self-service."
The trend involves a convergence of several technologies, including document imaging, work flow, Web publishing, extensible markup language (XML), electronic forms, records management systems and database technology. And it promises a windfall of opportunity for imaging vendors and systems integrators.
"It's absolutely huge right now," said Andrew Bridge, vice president of North American government operations for JetForm Corp., an Ottawa-based producer of electronics forms software and e-business solutions. "No matter what agency we talk to ? federal, state or municipality ? they're talking about self-service to the citizen, giving them accessibility 24 x 7."
State agencies have taken the lead on this type of application, the ability to apply for or renew a driver's license online being the best-known example. Federal agencies, on the other hand, have just started to allow citizens to log onto Web sites and perform routine tasks that traditionally have required them to drive to an office or mail
in paperwork. But many are already testing the waters:
? The U.S. Secret Service now allows banks and financial institutions to fill out and transmit a Web-based counterfeit note report.
? Commercial truck and bus operators can link to a Transportation Department "do it yourself" Web site (diy.dot.gov) to apply for registrations and use their credit cards to pay fines for violations of agency regulations.
? The Internal Revenue Service is quickly moving from simply providing PDF-based tax forms over the Internet to actually allowing taxpayers to fill out their tax returns online and submit them virtually.
Damian Kokinda, a management analyst with the management and organization division of the Secret Service, said that constituent self-service, be it for citizens, businesses, other agencies or employees, provides a wealth of financial and efficiency benefits.
"Whenever you can streamline that whole process and put those facilities in the hands of a user rather than making them go through a third party, you're going to experience tremendous savings in terms of money, man-hours and paperwork," he said.Several factors are driving the new trend, not the least of which is the growing comfort by citizens toward providing personal and credit card information over the Internet.
But government officials also are feeling strong pressure from the 1998 Government Paperwork Elimination Act, which requires federal agencies to stop using paper to create, use or store official records within four years. That means they have to start offering forms electronically, accepting electronic payment and accepting electronic signatures by 2002.
"Citizens, businesses and even government employees are pushing this as well," said Gary Robinson, vice president of business development for the Association for Information and Image Management International, an industry trade association for document and business process management technologies in Silver Spring, Md.
"People have gotten used to going online and taking care of personal business on their own time. They don't want to go to an office and stand in line, or make a phone call or wait for a form or piece of information to be mailed to them," he said. "The need and demand for convenience is a big factor here."
Giving citizens and employees the ability to access documents and forms via a browser also cuts down on an agency's IT-related costs and resources, including cost of ownership, desktop configuration, maintenance and system deployment.
Technology breakthroughs also are paving the way to Web-based government service. Document imaging and work flow products, such as HighView from Highland Technologies, a provider of database and image management technologies in Lanham, Md., are making it easier for organizations to develop enterprisewide solutions.
Traditional document management vendors have switched their focus to providing Web-based content management. And records management systems, integrated with electronic repositories and imaging systems, have made it much easier to apply agency policies and rules on routing, storing and destroying official documents.
"The whole imaging industry has moved from providing basically an electronic file cabinet to a total management discipline of the whole document and records process," said Carl Muller, vice president and co-founder of Highland Technologies. "And that's so important, because once you move all this out to the Web and open it up to the public, there are tremendous legal ramifications."
Most importantly, perhaps, has been the development of XML, a standard and metalanguage that offers a data-structuring flexibility and sophistication far beyond the capabilities of HTML (hypertext markup language). With XML, users can move much more seamlessly between heterogeneous platforms.
"Formatting is a lot easier to do in XML, so the documents you put up on the Web look a lot more like the originals," said Nate Pruitt, a research analyst for the Giga Information Group in Santa Clara, Calif. "Viewing documents is easier in XML, searching for documents is much more accurate. You can author a document in numerous applications, store the document in XML and then open it in all different kinds of applications. It's just a great tool."
Although XML has been around for a few years, imaging, content management and electronic forms vendors really have begun to embrace the standard just this year. And because XML now eases the ability for agencies to put constituent self-service on the Web, it will become increasingly important to Web service as government agencies integrate their processes.
"Citizens will be able to fill out, say, a change of address form on a portal, and that information will go to every agency that requires it, like the [department of motor vehicles] and the IRS," said Bridge. "It will allow everybody to talk to each other, no matter what platforms are used."Developing a constituent self-service application is not quite as simple as throwing up a link on a Web site. Industry players note that while some agencies are ahead of the curve and are able to implement simple applications, most are finding major hurdles to making citizen service virtual.
The greatest challenge, in fact, is that most agencies have little or no agencywide back-end infrastructure in place.
"Historically, imaging has been a work-group solution, but to do this properly, agencies need enterprisewide solutions," said Larry Den, vice president for information technology for Vredenburg, a systems integrator based in Reston, Va. "Accounts receivable might have implemented a solution, for example, but not accounts payable. So there's a real inconsistency in most organizations.
"To get their services to the Web, agencies have to recognize that imaging has moved beyond being a tool set to being an integral part of a total solution," Den said. "And systems integrators have to bring that point home: that this type of enterprise approach is the only way they're going to accomplish their business requirements."
In fact, systems integrators ? especially those with expertise in Visual Basic, XML and Internet technologies ? have a major role to play throughout the process, beginning with the very first steps: determining
what applications are most appropriate to start with, what information should be stored in the electronic repository and assessing the organization's business processes.
"The hardest part for government is understanding their own process," said Bridge. "It's not just taking a paper process and making it electronic. They've got to sit down and really understand what they want to do, and then talk to other departments to figure out how the new process will affect them. It's a tough task."
Peter Harnack, senior product manager for ScanSoft Inc., a Peabody, Mass., developer of Web publishing, electronic forms, document management and media asset management software, agreed. "Customers are often in such a rush to go electronic that they try to skip the basic steps, which is taking the time and making the effort to put in a good, quality imaging and work flow system," he said. "There are a lot of baby steps that have to be taken."
Many industry players recommend that agencies begin by offering employee
services rather than citizen services, a suggestion the Secret Service has taken to heart.
The agency began its Web-based
service application by using ScanSoft's OmniForm product to put all of its administrative forms on the Web. That way, its 5,300 employees, many of whom perform investigative work in the field, could have access at any time. The agency has since put some public services on its site, including reporting forms for financial institutions and recruitment applications.
Kokinda noted that his two biggest challenges were adapting paper forms for an electronic format ? a "pretty daunting process," he said ? and operating the site such that updates to forms were publicized to employees.
"We put that information on the Web, so our employees know immediately when a forms revision has taken place and where they need to go to get it," he said.
Beyond the cultural changes, technological challenges abound. Organizations not only need to develop a back-end process that systematically converts paper to electronic form, but the electronic repository also must connect to legacy systems, databases and optical storage facilities.
Agencies need to incorporate the
document management system as it
is creating electronic documents from
the desktop, and instill the discipline
in employees to use that system
effectively. The electronic repository then should be integrated with a records management system, which will manage automatically the agency's policies and rules about how to keep its records and for how long.
Once the back-end system is in place, organizations need to link it to their Web front-end using Internet development tools and applications. This step, according to Tim Picraux, director of solutions development for Blue Bell, Pa.-based systems integrator Unisys Corp., is especially tricky, not so much for the technological issues but the potential cultural and political problems it presents.
Organizations need to think long
and hard about user authorization
and access policies, redaction policies, citizen acceptance, privacy concerns and security.
"You're talking about opening up
your files and records to potentially millions of people, so you've really got to think through the idea of their accessing information and sending personal data into your system," he said. "You've got to be prepared for what that means and how to handle it properly. There's a lot at stake."
Den said systems integrators themselves need to really take charge, get users involved early on and prepare organizations for the shock that inevitably sets in when switching to a completely new way of doing business.
"To go from very little imaging infrastructure to a Web-based service application is quite a challenge for people to understand, to budget for, to plan for," he said. "As integrators, we need to make sure that everybody understands that the new system will create other change and prepare them for that."JetForm Corp., an Ottawa-based provider of electronic forms, made a big play for the government "constituent self-service" market recently when it unveiled ReachForm, the first e-business solution on the market that can deliver single-designed forms to any browser running on any device, be it a desktop computer, a laptop or a wireless handheld device.
With ReachForm, users do not have to download anything; they simply click on a Web link and the data appears in the browser, said a company official.
"There are actually more than 1,270 browsers on the market," said Andy Bridge, vice president of North American government operations for JetForm. "But nobody could ever design for that many, nor do they even want to design for 14 or even three browsers. With this, it's truly write once, deliver many, many times."
ReachForm integrates device-independent forms based on XML (extensible markup language) and electronic acknowledgment into a whole product solution that can be up and running quickly and integrated into existing Web infrastructures.
Bridge noted that organizations benefit from the solution's point-and-click design tool that allows personnel to graphically create and modify forms, while end users benefit from the ability to fill in the form in a familiar browser environment, with no plug-in or download required.