Case closed

SPECIAL REPORT: State & Local Innovations | Persistence, planning and people skills brought imaging system to reality

Government, ideally, is where people work together toward common goals. But too often, interagency rivalry and lack of communication thwart cooperation, leading to inefficient, stovepiped systems.

That’s the situation Keith Fournier stepped into in 2001 when he became chief information officer for the 47 agencies and elective offices, and 4,400 employees of Lucas County in northwest Ohio, seated in Toledo.

Fournier discovered that nine county agencies were planning their own imaging systems to scan, store and track documents electronically. “I told my administrator, ‘We can’t put nine different systems on our network—it’ll crush our network, and I don’t have the people,’ ” Fournier said.

As a certified project manager, he understood the importance of executive buy-in and of identifying a high-level champion. In government, it’s all the better if the champion is an elected official. Fournier teamed with Bernie Quilter, the county’s clerk of courts. The two convinced the county administration to consolidate on a centralized enterprise content management (ECM) system. “It took three years of me hitting the streets,” Fournier said.

After an internal team established requirements, Fournier sent out a performance-based request for proposals.

“The classic RFP process is perfect for ordering commodities,” said Greg Boyd, president of Results Engineering in Columbus, Ohio, the consultant and system integrator for the project.

But this one had a number of unusual criteria, such as the ability to accommodate multiple agencies, and proof of engineers’ certification on PeopleSoft, Cisco and other mission-critical components.

“It was the biggest RFP response we ever made,” Boyd said. The subsequent product search led to OnBase from Hyland Software Inc. of Westlake, near Cleveland.

County approval

With the backing of the county manager, Fournier asked two things of participating agencies: to establish a paperless process called day-forward imaging, and perform “back-file conversion” of existing documents.

Fournier, who has been with the county for 11 years, started as a geographic information systems analyst, an experience that helped with the ECM system. “In scope and size, it’s not that different from enterprise GIS, where you try to establish one mapping standard for the county, and you do it once and use many times,” he said.

With all document systems, a key step is developing a taxonomy: standard phrasing for documents types and terms within documents (think of the many ways to show birth dates and addresses). Results Engineering created a methodology and software for the purpose, called Doxonomy, which reduced the number of keywords from more than 2,400 to about 240.

The infrastructure behind the ECM system is heavy on networked storage, gigabit bandwidth and online software. Image files are saved in industry standard, non-encrypted TIFF Group IV instead of a vendor-specific format that might not wear well in the future.

Mirrored EMC Clariion storage area network appliances hold the data, and applications run on IBM xSeries and Dell servers. Several hot-backup alternate sites ensure disaster recovery. Cisco Content Switches with load balancing and failover can keep up to 10,000 Web connections online.

A Microsoft SQL server database on the IBMs serves mostly as a metadata index to the documents on the SAN devices, and thin clients provide access to the document store, though the scanner-equipped networked PCs require thick-client software containing secure links to the image store and index. ESRI software on the Dell servers provides GIS maps and data for certain documents.

Quilter’s office continues to play a key role. “Clerk of Courts is the primary user at this point, because they have integrated their case-management software with the imaging, and have done the most back-file conversion to date,” said Mike Jacobs, an IT manager.

Quilter also oversees a centralized imaging center that sits on county property one-and-a-half blocks from the data center. Focusing on back-file conversion, it is staffed by employees of a local sheltered workshop for the mentally and physically handicapped. The center handles 90,000 images a week and is expected to diversify as a private-sector service bureau. “In two months’ time, these guys have imaged two years’ worth of back files,” Quilter said.

Fournier worked out an innovative licensing deal with Hyland. The county formed a consortium with the City of Toledo and Toledo Public Schools that allowed all three to share the central OnBase application and buy client licenses at a steeper discount, thanks to the larger pool of users.

“Keith had the foresight to know that these two entities were going to need certain capabilities that were performed by the counties,” said Michael Bilardo, Hyland’s director of government solutions.

Officials now want to extend the system to more county agencies. “We just make sure they adhere to the standard,” Fournier said. “We facilitate, they take ownership.”

The next step is to make electronic documents publicly available, something three juvenile and family-related agencies will soon offer, once security concerns are addressed. Quilter is on a court commission that is creating rules for redacting documents so they can be viewed online without exposing personal information that is protected by privacy laws.

Fournier has the numbers to prove real savings. It would have cost the nine county agencies $5.47 million to buy their own ECM systems, plus $3 million in annual production costs such as disk space, licensing and labor. The shared solution cost only $1.3 million to buy, plus $223,000 a year for production.

David Essex is a freelance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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