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10/24/2003
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Federal Agencies Aim To Cut Paperwork

Some go beyond requirements to automate business processes

While some federal agencies didn't meet last week's compliance deadline for the Government Paperwork Elimination Act, others moved beyond the requirements to create better business processes. Agencies have had five years to comply with the act, which in its broadest interpretation requires that they make it possible for people to submit and exchange documents electronically. It stops short of requiring electronic business processes.

The Air Force is one agency that has used the compliance effort as an opportunity to improve processes. It started converting paper and static Web forms into interactive electronic forms in October 2002, and, by June of this year, it had 18,000 XML-based E-forms and was compliant with the act. The agency invested $6.7 million in E-forms software from PureEdge Solutions Inc. and brought in a 30-person team of contractors to manage the conversion.

That was the first step in pursuit of a bigger goal. "We wanted to change the paradigm for information gathering, information presentation, and information processing," says Carolyn Watkins-Taylor, director of the Air Force Departmental Publishing Office. By using an IBM content-management system to bridge E-forms and legacy systems, some of which can't read XML, the Air Force is able to create workflows that let E-forms be routed to all types of systems.

For instance, the Air Force plans to launch a system next year to let officers submit personnel evaluations via an E-form template that carries their digital signatures. The form will then be routed to the Air Force personnel center and eventually will provide enlisted personnel with online access to their evaluations.

The Office of Management and Budget isn't releasing a breakdown of agencies compliant with the paper-elimination act until next year, but it had expected 59% of all government document transactions to be electronic by the deadline. That number grows to 86% when documents that aren't suitable for electronic exchange, such as customs forms distributed on airplanes, are excluded.

Efforts to comply with the paper-elimination act have trickled down to the state level, where agencies sometimes conform to federal guidelines to simplify transactions with the feds. The California Department of General Services created a legal services contract review process that state agencies use to manage cases and route payments. The process, which relies on Cardiff Inc.'s LiquidOffice E-form software, turns Web forms into workflow triggers, with data routed to agencies for decisions and approvals, and it automates billing and payment procedures. "We've taken a simple E-form and built an entire application around it," says Joseph Paez, staff information-systems analyst for the department, which is looking closely at building a similarly integrated process for computer-purchase justifications.

The Internal Revenue Service is among the agencies that have embraced E-documents, even though it's one of the few agencies exempt from the paper-elimination act. Some 150 IRS forms are configured for electronic filing, and last year 53 million taxpayers submitted 1040 returns electronically. The agency will add two XML-based E-forms, for businesses and tax-exempt organizations, built with the latest workflow-enabled PDF-creation tools from Adobe Systems Inc. Says Terry Lutes, director of the electronic tax administration: "We were acting as electronic government before there was electronic government."

Photo by Sacha Lecca

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