NIST scraps some paper

E-Approval project moves 220 forms to a Web-based system and digital signatures

The agency that built the atomic clock, invented a way to count electrons and developed virtual reality so refined it can be used for training surgeons still conducts much of its day-to-day business on paper forms that are shuttled from office to office in cardboard folders.

It has been done that way for years at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which turned 100 this spring. Say you want your NIST office painted. You fill out a work order, stick it in a red folder and send it to your supervisor. If he approves, he signs the order, returns it to the folder and sends it on to the next supervisor, who signs it and sends it forward and so on.

But that's beginning to change. With a project called e-Approval, NIST is scrapping some of its paper forms and red folders. In their place, the agency is using electronic forms and software that zips the forms to the appropriate managers, who can approve them with a digital signature and send them on to the next manager.

"We've just started rolling it out," said Kevin Inman, director of the e-Approval project. The rollout follows a pilot proj.ect begun a year ago.

In addition to automating "inter.divisional work orders," such as requests to have offices painted, NIST is starting to use electronic forms for some purchases, for employee reimbursement for local travel expenses and for some time and attendance records that must be kept for payroll purposes.

Automating just those processes required converting 220 paper forms to electronic format, Inman said. So far, NIST has not attempted business process re-engineering that might reduce the number of forms needed for routine trans.actions, he said.

NIST has hired Materials, Communication and Computers Inc. (MatCom), Alexandria, Va., to assemble its electronic business system using two commercial off-the-shelf products. One, HandySoft Corp.'s BizFlow 2000, is the electronic traffic manager that creates and routes the electronic forms. The other is public-key infrastructure software from Entrust Technologies Inc. that will enable NIST employees to use digital signatures.

E-Approval is Web-based, which keeps costs down and means the system is more widely available than earlier client/server systems, said Bill Smithson, vice president of MatCom's information technology group.

Once a user has called up the needed electronic forms, the e-Approval system provides instructions for filling them out. For some functions, "smart technology" takes over by automatically filling in parts of the form, then sending the completed form to the next recipient in the chain of command, according to MatCom officials.

Ultimately, creating paperless business processes should save NIST significant time and money, MatCom officials said.

When the e-Approval project began, NIST's intent was for it to use only the forms created by BizFlow 2000. How.ever, the Commerce Department, NIST's parent agency, has since adopted different programs for travel management and procurement.

When that occurred, e-Approval switched from being the generator of forms to being a conduit that links the travel and procurement systems with NIST's other automated business systems, Inman said. "It allows one system to talk to another" and routes electronic forms through NIST's administrative maze.

Without such a conduit, the result would be massive duplication of effort, Inman said. Electronic forms from one system might have to be printed out and the information rekeyed to be compatible with another system, he said. The e-Approval project has shown that that sort of duplication can be avoided, he said. The next challenge for the project may be digital signatures, which will be based on public-key infrastructure, a process where users are issued public and private keys so they can send encrypted digital signatures.

"PKI's not cheap," Inman said. It is costly because it requires substantial security to ensure the authenticity of signatures, "and it has to stay there for.ever." Security and longevity must be ensured as long as it may be necessary to prove the authenticity of a digital signature.

NEXT STORY: Army consolidating IT management

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