Lessons learned at home helped with new system

When Martin Smith, director of the International Trade Commission’s Office of Information Services, faced the task of overhauling the agency’s electronic docket system, he recalled his experience in building his home in McLean, Va., in the 1990s.

Smith had hired an architect to oversee the job and supervise the construction company. The project went smoothly, he said, and the architect spotted problems that Smith would have overlooked.

When planning the systems upgrade project, “the idea of having one contractor watching another appealed to us,” just as it had for his home construction, Smith said.

“Especially in the areas where the agency did not have a lot of large-project experience, we wanted to make sure we were holding the integrator to account for the process, and we felt we needed help with that,” he said.

ITC is a relatively small federal agency of 425 employees that administers and adjudicates trade laws, such as those that forbid “dumping” of imported products in the U.S. market.

“That leads to a business process, which is a docket,” Smith said. Attorneys use information filed in each docket as cases flow through the adjudication process.

“We created a first-generation electronic docket system called EDIS in the mid-1990s,” Smith said.

By the end of the decade, EDIS used software that vendors no longer supported. In addition, the system had a lot of code that needed costly maintenance, he said. It relied on large text files in TIFF images in a Unix file system running on a Hewlett-Packard server.

Though systems specialists at ITC built a Web interface for EDIS, the interface did not permit working with entire documents. “The search capability was so slow that it didn’t allow the staff to do full-text research,” Smith said.

“This system had run out of gas. “We were hoping to get a more functional system that would be easier to use.”

Remote access

The ITC also had to comply with the Government Paperwork Elimination Act of 1999, which required it to let attorneys in remote locations submit filings online.

The docket system upgrade was the largest IT project the commission staff had ever carried out, Smith said, so they decided to use more formal methods than they had with smaller projects.

“We did not have a lot of formal systems methods implemented,” Smith said, “The fastest way seemed to be contract out for project management support and work with that contractor’s methods.”

ITC selected Robbins-Gioia LLC of Alexandria, Va., in July 2001.

“Their first task was essentially to help us put together requirements and a solicitation for the systems integrator work—that is one thing that has been working very well,” Smith said.

After analyzing the problems, ITC issued a competitive solicitation through General Services Administration schedules and awarded a contract to R.M. Vredenburg & Co. of Reston, Va., in December 2001.

The project manager advised ITC to use the software the integrator suggested, Smith said. “Vredenburg bid their own software, which is called Highview. They are both the developer and the integrator.”

Smith said the outcome was the result of detailing a set of requirements rather than acting on a preconceived idea of what the system would look like.

The Highview system runs under Microsoft Windows 2000 and uses an Oracle8i database for storage and search functions. “We also made a design decision to use Adobe Portable Document Format for the files,” Smith said. “So we are using some Adobe products to convert things to PDF.”

The project’s development and project management support will cost the agency about $2 million.

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