USDA updates document system

The Agriculture Department is upgrading a 9-year-old document system that generates and manages the agency's paperwork.

USDA officials are adding new capabilities to the system and pondering whether to replace the obsolete document-generation system it is built on with something newer.

The system automates the USDA's loan program, which grants about $4 billion in loans annually, said Richard Lawrence, an attorney in the agency's Office of General Counsel and the system's project manager. Called Automated Legal Practice Service (ALPS), it allows USDA staff to type in information related to the loan programs and then automatically generate the proper forms, already filled out.

Late last month, Retrieval Systems Corp. gave the service the ability to generate Adobe Systems Inc. PDF forms that adhere to the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), which is necessary for securing interest in borrowers' personal property. In the course of the project, the vendor picked an Appligent Inc. product called FDFMerge to generate the forms.

Retrieval Systems had tried to build the new capability with HotDocs from Capsoft Development Corp. — now owned by LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. — which it believed might integrate better with Capsoft's older CAPS Author software already in use at the USDA. FDFMerge turned out to be the better bet, and Retrieval Systems staff wrote an Extensible Markup Language interface to move data from CAPS Author into the new system, said B. William Basheer, the company's president.

"When [software is] working, it's hard to make the decision to go a different way. But this creation of the UCC form is a good example of when we had to go to a new technology," he said. "The Capsoft technology itself would not produce a filled-in PDF form" and FDFMerge does.

The USDA is testing and debugging the UCC capabilities now, Lawrence said.

Agencies everywhere are facing similar upgrade choices, said Robert Guerra, a consultant with Guerra, Kiviat & Flyzik. The decision ultimately rests on the return the change would bring.

"You have to make your decision based on a business case. If you have an archaic system, it may be costing you enormous amounts just in maintenance," he said. "Other times, you would stay with what you've got because you wouldn't get the benefit that the cost would incur."

USDA officials decided to automate the system almost 10 years ago after two paralegals and two attorneys left the agency in rapid succession.

Lawrence was asked to automate the document process, he said. "I saw it a little more broadly. We could do more than automate a few discrete things. We could make a really big difference in getting the documents out accurately."

During its nine-year span, ALPS has been updated and augmented with new technologies. It has 220 users in the United States.

In upgrading the system, the USDA has avoided major overhauls and instead changed things incrementally, Lawrence said. Now, he is considering whether to replace CAPS Author with HotDocs.

CAPS Author "is to this day extraordinarily powerful and able to accomplish everything we ask of it. But since the product is no longer supported and is obsolete, over time, little issues come up where we have to do workarounds," Lawrence said. "Eventually you reach a point where you have to say it's time to look for something more current."

He has eyed HotDocs as a possible replacement for a while, but past versions haven't been powerful enough. "We're already halfway through the fiscal year and it would be a major undertaking, so we're probably going to spend the next few months testing it," he said. "If we decide it can meet the needs, we probably will put it on our plan for '04."

With systems that grow over time, agencies have to pay attention to the technology, how the older systems work with newer ones and what new options are on the market now, Lawrence said.

But "it's not just technology," he said. "The key underlying point is that this stuff has followed the business need."

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Document generation

Key components of the Agriculture Department's Automated Legal Practice Service include: Document generation — CAPS Author (now owned by LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.).

PDF creation — Appligent Inc.'s FDFMerge.

Project tracking — Crystal Decisions' Crystal Reports.

Document types supported — More than 300, including Microsoft Corp.'s Word and Excel, Corel Corp.'s WordPerfect and Quattro Pro, and Adobe Systems Inc.'s PDF.

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