Auditors highlight patent automation problems

Jon Dudas, director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, told congressional auditors that he does not plan to further reassess the agency's patent automation plans, despite a critical audit and recommendations that USPTO fix what the auditors called ad hoc management practices.

A Government Accountability Office audit released June 17 states that USPTO officials violated many of the Clinger-Cohen Act's information technology management principles in an effort to develop an automated patent system. According to the audit report, the system is so problematic that the public is hesitant to use it.

Dudas disputed that conclusion. In his written response to GAO, he defended the agency's Web-based patent filing and document imaging systems as offering vastly improved capabilities compared with previous paper-based procedures for filing and processing patents.

"In light of the progress that the USPTO has made even during the period of GAO's assessment, we do not believe that such significant gaps exist as to warrant a pause and reassessment of our key management processes," Dudas wrote.

GAO auditors said that performance problems with the agency's automated patent systems stem in large part from management decisions that former director James Rogan made in 2002 under congressional pressure to move quickly on automating patent filing and processing.

But one industry official defended USPTO's automation efforts. "How far we have come and how ungrateful we can be," said Robert Cresanti, vice president for public policy at the Business Software Alliance, a trade group representing the software industry. "Just a few years ago, USPTO was a backwater," with a 20-year history of resisting assimilating IT into its processes.

Cresanti said the automated capabilities that exist today, while not perfect, should not be criticized too harshly.

But GAO auditors say they are concerned that USPTO will be unable to handle the workload of patent applications, which has increased more than 90 percent in the past 10 years, if the agency does not institute more rigorous management controls. The auditors also faulted USPTO officials for not having a functioning architecture review board.

USPTO officials told GAO auditors that they recognize sufficient problems in the Image File Wrapper document imaging system that they plan to begin replacing it in September at a cost of about $56 million during the next six years.

Separate from the GAO audit, USPTO commissioned an internal study in 2004 that found that the Office of the Chief Information Officer was not organized to help accomplish the automation goals set forth in USPTO's strategic plan and that the agency's investment management processes did not ensure appropriate reviews of automation initiatives.

As a result, USPTO has brought in new managers, including a new CIO, and is finishing work on a capital planning and investment control guide.

In a letter to GAO, Dudas wrote that "our current team of managers is faced with the challenging, but achievable, task of rebuilding confidence in the USPTO's IT systems, its methods of implementation and expenditure, and its relationship with the user community."

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