Agencies embrace eliminating paper

With the deadline for compliance with federal paper elimination guidelines just weeks away, agencies are assessing their progress and calling on software tools for help.

The Government Paperwork Elimination Act, a federal law that calls for federal agencies to offer digital forms and accept electronic signatures, goes into effect Oct. 21.

The Air Force has converted 18,000 forms from paper or more primitive electronic versions to Web-friendly, Extensible Markup Language-enabled documents. The work started last October, said Carolyn Watkins-Taylor, director of the Air Force's Publishing Office at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C.

The Air Force trained more than 300 employees as form designers, although the software did most of the initial conversions in bulk, she said. To prepare for future challenges, the designers chose to do some by hand to get a feel for how the software works, she said. The first 18,000 forms are the ones currently in use, but "we are constantly introducing new ones," she said.

Watkins-Taylor wanted more than just paper forms online, though. "We chose not to approach the transformation as moving from one digital form to another digital form," she said. "Our focus now is to try to unbox the data, to put the emphasis on the data."

The first phase of the conversion, the one now complete, was to convert the forms as they were, to make them available on the Web and to make them meet GPEA's digital signature requirement. During the next two phases, which are now under way, the data will be "unboxed," she said.

Watkins-Taylor plans to create "wizards" for many of the forms, so that instead of having to find and complete specific forms, Air Force personnel can answer a series of questions that elicit the needed information. The system will then send the data to all the forms that call for it. Information about a new baby, for example, could be added to the service member's medical and financial records automatically, so the user does not need to find each form that needs updating.

The Air Force is also developing the ability to analyze the information it collects. When service members' records are on paper and tucked away in filing cabinets, it's difficult to do more than look it up when needed. When it all resides in a database, the Air Force can derive statistics from it.

"We're recognizing that we're in the early stages of transformation," Watkins-Taylor said. "We're trying to move as quickly as we can for what we see coming."

She is in discussions with her counterparts at the Army and Navy to develop common XML data elements so that the military services will be able to share information easily, she added.

At the Agriculture Department's Agricultural Marketing Service, chief information officer Doug Bailey is using business process management software from Columbia, Md.- based Metastorm Inc. to convert forms to PDF files. His users want electronic forms that look the same as the older paper ones, he said.

The service doesn't plan to convert all of its forms, he added. The magnitude of his project is nothing close to the Air Force's.

"We're down to about 50 forms that we're going to deploy through GPEA," he said. "We have many more forms than that, but if it is a form that you get maybe five of a year, do you need that? Does it make sense to go to the additional cost?"

The service's customers are mostly agricultural companies that fill out forms to apply for clearance to bring certain products into the country or to register as a manufacturer.

Bailey is also re-engineering his management process to keep the data in electronic form — as a PDF — so it can't be altered.

"When we realized the capabilities we needed to respond to GPEA, we also realized the capability that would then be in our lap to make our internal processes more effective," he said. "That was part of the real sweet spot for us."

However, he hasn't publicized the approaching electronic availability yet, he said. "We don't want to turn the public side [of the Web site] on until we know people can access the information," he said. "We're not running around screaming too loudly just yet. We don't want to create demand for a product we can't support."

Forward-thinking agencies didn't need to be told to reduce their use of paper and introduce electronic forms, said Brian Nutt, chief operating officer of PureEdge Solutions Inc., a Canadian firm that lists several federal agencies and military branches as customers for its XML-enabled business process automation software.

"In my opinion, it's not so much about what these organizations have to do as what the progressive ones want to do," he said. "They've embraced GPEA not just as a way to move paper processes online. This is an opportunity to modernize and streamline processes. You could argue that moving any piece of paper onto another medium is improving accessibility. I applaud the intent behind that, but the opportunity is there to do so much more."

"The agencies that are just trying to digitize the paper, we can't deliver them any value because they're not rethinking the way they do things," said Robert Farrell, chief executive officer at Metastorm.

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