Following the paperless trail
In Casper, Wyo., the process of finding paper documents — e.g., deeds, contracts, municipal code ordinances and leases — used to occupy a lot of staff time. “We were finding that it would take no less than a day [to find documents], depending on the document and the amount of time [since it] had been accessed,” says Carter Napier, assistant to the city manager. “We had a database catalog system that would tell us the general area where we could find the documents, but we never were able to walk up to a system, find where the document was and go right to it.”
Last summer, the city installed a computer system that could convert paper documents into digital format, store them along with electronic documents and index the entire collection. Five departments contribute documents to the system, which is maintained by two staff members. The city purchased 25 software licenses from Long Beach, Calif.-based LaserFiche to allow read-only permission of the electronic files. Although every employee cannot access the records, several city departments can find the records when they need them. “As the database has been increased and is being built, the need to make a request in person has been less and less,” Napier says. “The customer serv-ice is what is most helpful. It just took so long and so many staff hours to chase down one document; this is a major improvement for us internally.”
As local governments automate business processes, they face a growing problem of managing electronic and paper records. Many documents — from memos created in word processing programs to permit applications submitted on the Internet — are created electronically. Many others, like traffic tickets and plumbing diagrams for new buildings, exist only on paper. Agencies need ways to store and retrieve both kinds of documents to address residents’ requests and employees’ needs.
Instead of printing out all electronic documents and storing them on paper, many local government agencies are turning to computer systems to store paper and electronic documents and make them easily accessible. The systems take many forms depending on the agencies’ needs, but the goals of all are similar: to organize documents in a central location; to simplify the document retrieval process; and to hold on to records that could be easily deleted, lost or rendered obsolete with software or computer upgrades. By engaging in an extensive planning process, cities and counties can ensure that they get the best technology for their needs and that they meet their responsibility to maintain public records.
High retrieval rates required
Five years ago, Milwaukee started a pilot program to scan and store digital copies of paper documents that were used frequently by many different departments and residents. Before the program began, employees and residents often had to track down paper copies of records, such as permits, that were held in various buildings throughout the city.
To simplify the permit retrieval process, the city consolidated all permitting functions into one building and began scanning each paper permit into a document imaging system. “When the permit is issued, the member of the public gets a copy of it, and then it is delivered to the records center,” says Jacquelyn Block, printing and records manager for Milwaukee. “The permit is scanned and digitized, which enables many different city departments that have to process that paperwork to access it simultaneously.”
Now, any resident or developer who wants a copy of a permit can visit the central permitting center, and staff can print out the digital copy of the document. The city also scans documents for the controller’s office, and it is considering adding documents from the municipal court and the city clerk’s office. The city, which uses software from Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Optica to scan documents, will be upgrading the system this year to increase the number of users from 55 to 250 and to allow residents to find some system documents on the Internet. “When a homeowner or business development company wants to see what type of work has been done on a property, they will be able to do a search on the system and access permits as well as other property records,” Block says.
Only a few years before Milwaukee began its imaging program, the Center for Technology in Government (CTG) at the State University of New York at Albany began a research project to address the problem governments face in storing and managing records electronically. In 1999, the center published the results of that research project to provide guidance on developing electronic records management systems. “Models for Action: Developing Practical Approaches to Electronic Records Management and Preservation” and its condensed companion, “Practical Tools for Electronic Records Management and Preservation,” provide a framework for organizations to use in considering the types of records they have and the best ways to manage them.
“Very often, information systems are developed without consideration of the electronic records management issues,” says Theresa Pardo, project director for CTG. “The reason you keep [a document] and the use you intend to make of it should influence the decisions you make about what strategy you will use [to manage it].”
Organizations should answer several questions when designing computer systems to manage documents, Pardo says. “What are they maintaining electronic records for? Is it for archival purposes? Why are they required to maintain the record? Who needs to have access to it? For how long? Very often many of the people we [speak] with in government organizations don’t really know why they’re keeping what they’re keeping,” she says.
By answering those types of questions, Henrico County, Va., was able to develop a countywide electronic document management system in 2000. In February 2001, the police department began scanning all traffic accident reports using the system.
Employing software from Irvine, Calif.-based Kofax Image Products, the system captures images, and staff members fill out index fields in a database to describe the information on the reports. The images and information are stored and organized using software from Costa Mesa, Calif.-based FileNET.
Once the accident reports are scanned and saved in the computer system, the paper versions are thrown away. When residents request copies of the documents, staff members query the database and print the image files.
The police department used to have lines of people waiting to retrieve accident reports while staff members looked through file cabinets to find them. Sometimes reports would be misfiled, which would make the process even more arduous. “When somebody comes up to the front desk and asks for the accident report, turnaround is a few seconds,” says Sam Gupta, imaging technology director for the county. “The service to citizens is huge.”
The county began the program with the accident reports because the reports have a high retrieval rate. “You really should not be imaging records unless they have a very high rate of retrieval,” Block says. “There are records that government agencies are legally bound to retain for certain periods of time, but, if they aren’t retrieved at all, it doesn’t make sense to invest in the labor to scan them or bog down your imaging system by storing those images there.”
Besides being used by residents, Henrico County’s accident reports are used by its traffic engineering division to generate information about accident-prone intersections. Now, instead of pulling the paper reports from file cabinets, engineers use a Web browser to query the database and find the number of accidents that occur at certain intersections during a certain period of time. Engineers can view, print, e-mail or fax the digital reports as they need them.
Recognizing the utility of the computer system for accident reports, the city manager’s office began using the system last summer to store documents such as residents’ correspondence and county board records. Users either can scan in paper documents or save electronic files directly to the system.
The county backs up all data on the system nightly and has taken security measures to prevent unauthorized users from altering documents once they have been saved. “We have security so that the person that added the document is the only one that can modify that document,” Gupta says. “Nobody else is pulling up my Word document and making changes without telling me. Even if somebody has the ability to do that, my original version is still there. I would see two versions: the modified one — and I would know who did it — and the original one.”
In January, five community development agencies began using the system to manage permits. Currently, 200 employees can access the system, and approximately 74,000 documents have been stored. “Our eventual goal is to have a paperless county,” Gupta says. “I know that’s a long way from happening, but we’re going to have to start with each agency.”
Maintaining long-term access
As with all technology projects, the software and hardware used for electronic document storage face the risk of becoming obsolete. Electronic storage media and software will change often in the future while records must remain unchanged. Because changes in technology are inevitable, local governments should make sure electronic systems are planned as part of long-term strategies for records retention, says Robert Williams, president of Chicago-based Cohasset Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in document management. That plan may include a schedule for migrating records to new hardware or transferring documents to alternative media forms after a certain period of time. “[Agencies] may need to migrate records forward from system A to system B,” he says. “If [they] do that, to what extent, then, have [they] lost any accuracy, reliability or trustworthiness?”
The San Diego Metropolitan Wastewater Department has struggled with that issue since it began using a document imaging system in the early 1990s. That early system became overloaded within a few years and had to be updated for Y2K.
To replace it, the department purchased a system from Pleasanton, Calif.-based Documentum, and it hired programmers to convert the old system’s database to the new one. (In addition, the department will inherit another document management system from one of its construction manager consultants at the end of the year, and it will have to determine the best way to merge the information from both systems into one.) “The hard part [of migrating systems is converting] the database that controls the index to find those stored files,” says Alan Watkins, department information officer. “It is a massive several-month-long effort to map out where things need to end up in the new system.”
All of those migrations contribute to the department’s cost of maintaining its electronic document storage system. “As [cities and counties] talk about moving to electronic records, they also have got to look at the full realities of the lifecycle of electronic records,” Williams says. “Maybe the reason [a document] is born in an electronic form is that it is the most efficient way to create a record today. But is that the most efficient way to retain a record in the long term? By not thinking of it at the time the record is born, they are postponing an inevitable problem: What are we going to do with it when the costs of maintaining it in electronic form become unacceptably large?”
Milwaukee began attacking that problem early in the planning stages for its imaging system. The city used to generate about 70 rolls of microfilmed records every year. Microfilm made the records easily accessible to many people, and it preserved documents that needed to be stored for many years. “In the past, technology was such that it made sense to put everything on film so you could have copies of it if you had multiple users wanting it simultaneously,” Block says.
Now that the city has a document imaging system, it has an alternative way to share records with multiple users. Documents that do not need to be retained for very long can be added to the imaging system, while long-term storage is accomplished with microfilm.
When the city upgrades its system this year, it will be able to scan documents into the imaging system and microfilm them at the same time. “For things like permit records, where you’re establishing property rights of citizens or the municipality and you want to have that available as a legal record, you need to preserve it on film as well as make it accessible via the digital imaging system,” Block says.
The people factor
When cities and counties implement electronic storage and retrieval systems, they may encounter some resistance from employees. Skeptics may question the permanency of electronic storage or view the storage process as cumbersome. In Henrico County, for example, some paper documents still are being filed as well as stored electronically. “Until we know for sure that we can throw away [documents, staff members] still have to file them in some cases,” Gupta says. “That’s a disadvantage for them now because it kind of gives them a little extra work to do. But, when they see that they don’t have to get up and look for that document, I think they realize the benefits.”
Casper also has met some resistance from employees who are reluctant to adopt new technology. To combat that resistance, the city has invested in training opportunities for staff members to learn the new document management system. “Any amount of training or advanced information you can put toward staff is well invested time and energy,” Napier says. “That’s probably been our biggest hangup — trying to get the staff comfortable with what’s going on and getting everyone on the same page.”
Cities and counties can ensure successful implementation of electronic document management projects by first considering:
the types of documents that can benefit from electronic management,
long-term document retrieval needs and
system maintenance requirements.
“Very often, people underestimate the cost of developing electronic records access programs,” Pardo says. “It’s not about technology. It’s about design decisions. It’s about ongoing maintenance decisions. It’s about managing a service to a community versus creating a technology tool.”