An office system installed last year proves its worth after mail shutdown
Although the aftermath of the anthrax scare forced most Capitol Hill offices to struggle with late or displaced constituent mail, Sen. Edward Kennedy's (D-Mass.) office — which handles up to 1,000 letters a day — has had few glitches, thanks to a sophisticated computer-based system.
The new system, officially introduced last October, was installed to save money and make the office more efficient, according to Ngozi Pole, Kennedy's office manager and systems administrator. But when the office was forced to close its Washington, D.C., mailroom last fall because traces of anthrax had been found there, Pole's reliance on information technology proved its worth.
Like other congressional offices, Kennedy's office kept one of its servers in the mailroom, and when the mailroom was closed, the server became inoperable. But unlike other congressional offices that were unable to communicate, Kennedy's Boston office had a duplicate server linked to the new system. It continued to operate, delivering services to constituents and keeping the workplace humming.
"One of the things that's now possible — and that wasn't possible before — is that when constituents aren't getting an answer they'd like to hear from our Boston office, they call Washington and try to initiate answers here," Pole said. "I can now take the constituent's name, start a search and look up the entire history of the communications with Boston. That way, nothing falls through the cracks."
Pole started his search for a new management tool by canvassing political offices that use satellite facilities. "I wanted an information management system that used real time," he said.
Pole found what he needed in New York Gov. George Pataki's offices, which use an IBM Corp. server running ComputerWorks' InterTrac, IBM ServerProven and Lotus Development Corp.'s Domino-based workflow automation software to track and update documents at any location.
Pole estimates the system will save at least $350,000 in software and support services during Kennedy's current term, which runs through January 2007. It also makes the office more efficient because it operates from one integrated and easily administered set of databases and a server over a wide-area network that is updated every seven minutes, he said.
Most important, however, is how the system allows Kennedy's staff to track constituent requests — many of which come in written form.
The office can now send mail to constituents in less than 10 minutes instead of three weeks, close a case in four hours instead of four days and keep staff schedules on an intranet site (see box).
Consultants who work with a technology-oriented public applaud the new system. "It is a great use of technology," said Pam Fielding, who runs the electronic lobbying firm e-advocates in Washington, D.C. "They are creating an electronic paper trail, and [constituents] need to know someone is listening."
In the past, Kennedy's office had to rely on one of two vendors approved by the Senate that charged an "astronomical amount for services," according to Pole. Because Kennedy's is one of the Senate offices using an Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh system, Pole was able to go outside the approved vendor list to find a company that met the office's needs.
It shouldn't matter if the vendor who makes the system doesn't have an official OK to sell to Congress, analysts say. "Who can be against efficiency as long as the product is the same?" said James Snider, a Markle fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "It doesn't seem that any reasonable person would be against providing the same service at less cost."
Pole plans to roll out two new features on the system soon. The first, which should be up and running within 30 days, will automate the process through which constituents make online requests for flags that have flown over the Capitol. The second, due this summer, will connect a form on Kennedy's Web site that constituents use to request appointments with the senator to the e-mail inbox of Kennedy's scheduler.
Kennedy's office has always been on the cutting edge of technology. He was the first member of Congress to have a Web site, built by former staff member Chris Casey in early 1994, a full year before any other congressional lawmaker had one.
Keeping in touch with constituents
InterTrac, a workflow automation product from ComputerWorks, plays a crucial role in keeping Sen. Edward Kennedy's office in touch with his constituents.
The product's key functions include:
* Managing letters, which are scanned in and converted to PDF files.
* Creating mailing lists.
* Generating mass mailing groups, using codes assigned to each correspondence.
* Compiling an opinions database, which can be used to generate an instant poll.
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