EPA set to roll out e-forms system

Environmental Protection Agency officials are poised to introduce a system that will let employees easily create and distribute electronic forms.

EPA officials are using ITM Associates Inc.'s PDF inFusion eForms to give agency employees the ability to quickly create

e-forms that look identical to the paper forms they are replacing, according to EPA information technology leaders and industry experts.

Using a central Web portal, EPA employees will be able to create and electronically store a variety of forms for purchase requests, awards, employee benefits, leave requests, expense reimbursements and many other purposes. PDF inFusion eForms lets users turn PDF files into complete e-forms.

Agency officials have been modifying the system and plan to launch a production model this summer and distribute it agencywide starting next fiscal year. The production model and implementation will cost about $400,000, officials said.

The 18,000-person agency had used an e-forms application based on IBM Corp.'s Lotus Notes messaging software, developed about nine years ago. But the application outlived its usefulness, EPA officials said.

For a seamless upgrade, they said developers must build on the existing infrastructure. The agency's IT managers are installing PDF inFusion eForms on IBM's Lotus Domino Server 6.5 and WebSphere portal. Rather than using the proprietary PDF inFusion interface, officials can capitalize on the security, workflow and data capabilities of the underlying Lotus Notes Domino platform.

The forms application is Web-based, said Liza Hearns, chief of the EPA's desktop and system development branch, which makes the software easier to use. Because most potential users are familiar with the Internet, the system requires little training. Users don't need a lot of instructions to fill out the forms because they are in PDF format.

The EPA, "like most government agencies, already had many forms in the Adobe [Systems Inc.] PDF format," said Ian Altman, president of ITM Associates. "So EPA was able to start by using the PDF forms as the user interface for the application. PDF inFusion ties the PDF form to the back-end Domino [server] or other database and provides the workflow to route forms, track status and provide a centralized forms portal."

Because users only deal with a portal interface and the PDF form, they only need a Web browser and Adobe Reader. Domino and PDF inFusion can run across multiple operating platforms, Altman said. A single server provides global access.

Organizations are trying to integrate their applications, workflows and business processes into their group communication strategies using underlying messaging technologies, such as Lotus Notes Domino or Microsoft Corp. Exchange, said Jonathan Eunice, principal analyst and information technology adviser with Illuminata Inc., an IT consulting firm.

"That's the right direction," he said, "but it's by no means easy work to engineer how an organization and its employees work. It takes time."

Lawrence Lee, the EPA's project manager for the e-forms team, said other agency officials who are developing a strategy and test programs for e-forms should involve users, do an upfront project analysis and spend most of the budget on analysis early in the cycle to avoid changes.

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