Features: May 21st, 2004

Beyond Electronic Document Management

Lindsay Dransfield

In order to meet the challenges of the Modernising Government Agenda, many public bodies have been jumping on the electronic document management (EDM) bandwagon, putting systems in place across their departments to more effectively store data. However, whilst this achieves a ‘cross’ next to electronic service delivery, it does little to improve internal processes, deliver long-term value to the customer and achieve the organisational change required to truly fulfil the objectives of ‘joined-up` Government. The real benefits come from adopting an electronic workflow infrastructure.

EDM is based upon the duck metaphor – calm about the water, but flapping like mad below the visible water line. With EDM, documents may be stored in an electronically efficient way, but the time-consuming problems of file tracking and measuring document-handling performance that are associated with the paper-based system still apply. Single electronic documents are still distributed, updated and filed independently in different electronic locations and therefore EDM remains a temporary fix that still causes end-user frustration.

But implemented correctly, within a true workflow infrastructure, EDM technology can absolutely deliver. Workflow is undoubtedly placed at the heart of successful process management and the flow of work in any organisation has to be controlled to be truly efficient. Consequently, public bodies looking to achieve a long-term solution and realise a true vision of E-Government that not only lowers costs and increases service, but also organises service delivery around the customer, would be wise to adopt a workflow system.

Integrating electronic document management with workflow

The combination of true workflow and EDM ensures that the right work is routed to the right people, in the right department, at the right time, in order to be processed accurately and efficiently. Working on a case-based allocation method, a workflow system ensures that every electronic item passing through the organization is indexed to a customer’s appropriate case file. With each department having its own established workflow rules, checks, actions and conditions for incoming correspondence and the workflow being monitored, maintained and balanced, each stage in a customer’s case can be completed in a timely fashion and accurately and automatically routed onto the next stage. This not only provides clarity of processes with rules and procedures that truly align with the market, the working environment and the service, but also ensures that all users have easy access to all relevant case information so that incoming telephone enquiries can be dealt with immediately, first time round. This hence ensures that organizations are able to provide exceptional service, adapt a more customer-centric approach and reduce response times and the cost of call-backs.

So, if for example, a customer calls a local authority to query a mistake with their Council Tax bill, then the citizen-facing person within the Council Tax department who deals with the query should be able to access the information and respond to the query immediately. In fact, using workflow as the underlying technology, it is possible to provide a common front end to all activities across the local authority. A local authority’s staff would then have the ability to deal with multiple enquiries or handle complete end-to-end processes. Consequently, a customer who was moving house would therefore only need to notify one department and their records would be updated across the board. This is true workflow, true ‘joined up’ Government, and is the way to ensure complete citizen satisfaction.

Benefit claims

True workflow and EDM can also help solve the problems associated with Verification Framework compliance. A non-compulsory claims process practice that Benefit departments are encouraged to adopt by the Government, it has the objective of combating fraud within the Benefits system and improving customer service by ensuring that claims are correct and accurate upon commencement. The Verification Framework requires that citizens making a claim provide greater proof of their entitlement for benefit. This can be achieved through the provision of original documentation supporting the citizen’s income details, rent details and identification.

Rather than actioning benefit claims as paper files, with the associated problems of handling and storing the increased paper documentation requirements, an EDM and workflow system enables the original documents to be scanned and indexed into the Benefit department’s system. This kicks off a workflow process.

With the minimum standard of evidence needed for a claim to be assessed the system will have an in-built check facility so that if a workflow process is not completed within a pre-determined period, a reminder is sent to a designated person or to initiate another process. Furthermore, with the system set-up with pending trays, when a related document, such as evidence of a claim is received, the associated document can be released from pending and sent automatically to the person handling that case. The system also has the capacity to chase customers for non-return of forms.

The electronic availability of data allows staff to access the system and confirm that documents are being processed and also staff at remote locations, for example, the Benefit Counter Fraud Team, to view entire case loads without the need to transfer paper files. This ensures that all the paperwork can be referred together and goes one step further in reducing the time between the application for benefit and the benefit being granted or denied.

Helping staff on the road

Mobile technologies are also bringing greater flexibility to working practices by enabling field workers to initiate workflow processes remotely. A local authority’s housing team, for example, would visit houses to assess their suitability for tenants or to assess repair work needed. However, instead of making written notes that are then typed up at a later date when the worker is back in the office, workers would have pen tablets, the size of a laptop screen, upon which they make notes. By simply plugging these pen tablets into the network in their office, all the stored data can be downloaded onto the local authority’s network.

Freedom of information

However, such openness of data and cross-departmental communication, means that the local authority must put processes in place to ensure that it meets the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act (FOI.) Each department has a unique set of workflow and business processes that not only adhere to departmental needs, but also to the needs of the entire Authority.

The FOI Act obliges public bodies to disclose information, unless exempted by other laws, whilst still maintaining the security and confidentiality of sensitive data. From 31st January 2005 anyone requesting information must be informed, in writing, within 20 working days, whether the organization Authority holds information of the type specified. As a result, EDM and Workflow will become a massive issue for public bodies.

Meeting the needs of tomorrow

It seems therefore that public bodies cannot overlook the importance of EDM and workflow solutions. However, those that choose to adopt them must remain committed to the evolution of the solution alongside developments in a department’s business processes and best practice procedures.

Workflow and EDM is not after all solely focused around delivering the best customer service today, but helping public bodies meet tomorrow’s needs – The Modernising Government agenda and beyond.

Lindsay Dransfield is with Comino plc. www.comino.com 01132 441404.