Forms Follow Function

Got e-forms yet? Why, sure we do! That's what everybody says at least. These days, it's hard to find a state, county or large local government body that isn't touting its electronic forms online or pushing hard on the concept internally, and for good reason.

Used to their full potential, electronic forms allow people to fill out government documents online, complete with interactive prompts to guide them through the process, preventing time-consuming and costly errors.

Some systems even automatically fill in parts of forms with existing data by referencing back-end databases on the fly. That way, applicants don't have to re-enter street addresses or other common data.

Once filed, the forms can be automatically routed to their destinations or even filed with different agencies simultaneously.

Most obvious to the back office is what's not there any longer: laborious keying in of data, with its potential to introduce errors, as well as the often significant costs for designing, printing, distributing, processing, storing and updating paper forms.

With such savings and efficiencies, it's no wonder e-forms have worked their way to the top of the priority lists of many information technology departments. There's just one problem. In these early stages, it seems, an e-form is largely in the eye of the beholder.

Some organizations — maybe even most — post on their World Wide Web sites or intranets scores of paper forms that have been converted into Adobe Systems Inc.'s Portable Document File (PDF) format. Armed with an Adobe Acrobat reader — available for free online — citizens and employees alike can download forms. But they must still print them out and proceed as usual: mailing, faxing or delivering them in person.

As nice as that is, government officials know it's just the tip of the e-forms iceberg.

Thinking Big

Wisconsin, one of the savvier states when it comes to e-forms, has various agencies pursue e-forms pilots individually, while the state provides technical guidelines and key technology components. Features include:

    * A central forms repository.

    * Automatic calculations and auto-populating fields on the front end.

    * Back-end database connectivity.

    * Reusable objects for cost-effective forms design.

The state also has appointed a statewide data, forms and records coordinator who reports to the Division of Technology Management.

"Our whole approach is data-centric," said Joyce Endres, president of the Business Forms Management Association, an Oregon-based professional organization. "The goal is to collect data at the source to avoid duplicating data re-collection and data entry."

In all, Wisconsin's plan is a far cry from print-'n'-fill PDF. But most forms strategies are not so ambitious. So when people talk about "electronic forms," it can be tough to tell what they are envisioning, according to forms managers.

In Washington state, the confusion regarding what constitutes an electronic form got so bad that Bill Hill, forms and records manager for the state's Department of Labor and Industries, developed a five-step chart to ensure that people speak the same language.

Hill and his department broke things down into what Hill calls "the five steps of evolution":

    1. Print on demand, using PDFs.

    2. Print and fill digitally, a capability supported by an Adobe Acrobat reader but still delivered via fax, hard copy, or mail.

    3. All digital, the ability to download data from or add data to a database.

    4. The first three items, plus workflow-type automatic routing.

    5. All of the above, plus support for digital signatures.

With about 90 PDF forms available, 20 of which are "fillable" — that is, they can be completed on a computer before being printed — Labor and Industries has turned its attention to Step 3. The agency is close to signing with one of the major e-forms software vendors, according to Hill.

To test the e-forms package they are considering, Hill and his team developed an initial electronic version of a pay document that normally takes 20 days to process in paper. "People said, "This [e-form] is horrible,' " Hill said. "We listened to their complaints, did some modifications, and now it's up and running, and we've got the turnaround time down to three days."

Governments across the country have similar success stories. In Wisconsin, Endres and the state's Enterprise E-Forms Standards Team are listing potential benefits, which they break down into printing-related benefits and business process and workflow benefits (see sidebar).

Those lists are only part of Wisconsin's broad, three-year e-forms analysis that covers every aspect of forms-related government, from standards development to hiring requirements for forms management.

As part of their research, the team is identifying business requirements for electronic forms and developing a centralized forms repository so workers can be sure they're always using up-to-date and legally binding forms.

To carry out the program, Wisconsin chose FormFlow, an electronic-forms development platform from JetForm Corp., Ontario, Canada.

Missouri chose OneForm, from Amgraf Inc., Kansas City, Mo., for its e-forms efforts. According to John Downs, forms manager in the state's Office of Administration, the program accepts the EPS file format used by QuarkXPress, the design package agencies use most often to develop paper forms.

Also, with OneForm's pricing scheme — the state has to buy only designer software, and the client is available for free — makes it significantly less expensive than some of the competition, which charges on a per-seat basis, Downs said. Finally, OneForm's programming source is Visual Basic, a language programmers already know.

Though Missouri's software is a suggestion rather than an official standard, the package is getting use: from the Office of Administration alone, 600 new electronic forms and 726 revised forms have hit the airwaves since July of last year, all done with OneForm.

On the local level, San Carlos, Calif., has adopted at least three different approaches to developing electronic forms, including modifying an existing poll-development package — MessageMedia Inc.'s Decisive Survey — for electronic use on the Web, according to assistant city manager Brian Moura.

The city was already relying on Decisive Technology Inc., which was acquired by MessageMedia, to build an application for face-to-face surveys on the quality of life in San Carlos, Moura said. "We hired 50 people to talk to 10 people each, then somebody said, why don't we put this on the Web?" he said.

The front end looks and behaves like a simple HTML page. In the office, San Carlos needed only to plug the data into a back-end process program to have an on-the-fly digital survey system.

The patchwork nature of various state and local governments' forms development tools is indicative of the electronic forms movement in general, which is often spread out across different agencies and built around a variety of software, industry analysts said.

"We're in the early stages. We expect [the market] will stabilize in the next couple years," said Rita Knox, vice president and research director for Gartner Group Inc., Stamford, Conn.

Like nearly every other IT development of the last five years, electronic forms will take cues from the Internet, Knox said. She predicted that successful forms software will be based on Extensible Markup Language, an emerging Internet language that enables Web designers to build more sophisticated Web pages than with HTML.

And citizens and government employees who have fed on a steady diet of Web interaction in their private lives will demand a certain level of intelligence and front-end guidance from government e-forms right from the start.

"When you go to Amazon.com, you're really just filling out a form," Knox points out. "The industry is already beginning to work toward conventions for how certain data is entered, and people will expect government forms to do the same thing."

Making It Stick

While commercial and government sites wait for electronic signatures, forms managers are wait to process legally binding forms digitally.

Whatever approach governments take for electronic forms, they will find themselves wrestling with issues of control and legality. Forms that are legally binding often must be exactly the same electronically as they are in paper, or lawsuits could result, said Joe Sampson, national manager of state and local government business for JetForm Corp.

For that reason, he urges governments to stay away from the simplest forms solutions — Microsoft Corp.'s Word or HTML — because it's difficult to prevent workers from making changes.

"Anybody who has a computer now considers himself a designer," said Missouri's Downs. Missouri state agencies are allowed to design their own forms, but Downs' office must approve them before they're produced to ensure they're legal and consistent with statewide design standards. "The state will not print the form unless it has our approval on it," he explained.

Washington state's Hill often finds that legal concerns are the primary reason why agency directors can be initially reluctant to embrace electronic forms. "Many agencies have a lot of tight legal requirements...so the forms-development process has to be highly coordinated to make sure everybody's needs are met," he said.

As inflexible as the option can be, "PDF is really a safe way to start," Hill said. Once directors see the PDFs working safely, they often soften their approach to more interactive projects, he says.

While large-scale electronic-forms efforts like Wisconsin's are likely to have the biggest impact on government, there's really no project too small to begin with, e-forms advocates say.

San Carlos, a city that prides itself on being one of the earliest municipal adopters of the Internet, has taken an approach that's typical of smaller organizations: If a form makes sense electronically, they try it. If it doesn't work, they modify it and try again.

Some PDF forms, such as a packet to apply for city jobs, are the most popular pages on the city's Web site, Moura said. Other forms built with HTML, such as the citizen's complaint form, are converted into an e-mail message and routed to the appropriate department for resolution.

While the city works on more advanced types of forms, including all-digital forms and those that support electronic signatures, Moura said what it's done thus far has been easy and popular with both citizens and city council members.

People have especially liked the citizen surveys. "There's definitely been some traffic" on the Web site, he said. "And because we're able to provide information along with the survey, we get better quality input back, and that makes our city council happy too."

—Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology.

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