As federal agencies in Washington look for ways to reduce operating costs, they might take a closer look at progress being made across the Potomac River in Virginia’s Fairfax County, where more than 70 different agencies are more than half way through an initiative to implement a comprehensive document management program.
Some 55 county agencies, departments and programs – from police and fire rescue to libraries, and health and human services – are now using a system that uses a new hardware and software which significantly reduces the need to manually handle paper documents. But it also offers the benefit of creating a secure document processing and collaborative environment for more than 15,000 end users.
“This is a very dynamic program,” says David Foechterle, customer service manager for the county’s Department of Information Technology. “We’ll be continually expanding and adding new capabilities as we move forward.”
The backbone of the implementation is a fleet of multi-function (scanner, copiers, printer, fax) devices, supplied by Ricoh, and a software package developed by Maryland-based Notable Solutions, which together provide document processing and secure integration with a number of back-end systems used for managing health records, accounting and electronic faxes.
Efficiency Challenges Demanded Change
While county governments may not face the scaling issues required by federal agencies, they do provide a fertile laboratory for how public sector organizations are grappling with the need to provide more services to citizens at a time when budgets are being squeezed dramatically.
Fairfax County, which serves more than a million residents in Northern Virginia and manages a budget larger than that of four states, recognized that a critical step in doing more with less depended on creating an environment that would be less reliant on paper-based processes while increasing security and speed of document delivery to users across the organization. The job of tackling that challenge fell to Foechterle.
“We had more than 600 copiers and multifunction devices spread out through our agencies, many of which were being under-utilized or that had reached the point of requiring constant maintenance,” he said. “I had a year left on our contract and that meant a year to research a solution.”
Foechterle reached out to document management consultants and a number of hardware and software vendors specifying parameters that each had to meet based on a needs assessment conducted with the agencies. Among those parameters was reducing paper output, streamlining document handling processes, increasing opportunities for collaboration among employees and agencies, and creating a common, user-friendly interface to nix the intimidation factor for employees.
Along with streamlining services to the agencies, Foechterle also wanted an intelligent management system that would proactively watch the fleet in real time. If there was an issue with one device, alerts would trigger the need for action before end users knew there was a problem.
New Hardware and Software Integration is the Solution
Foechterle and the county eventually selected a system that uses 500 Ricoh multi-function printers integrated with NSi AutoStore from Notable Solutions. The swap-out of old equipment and installation of the new system took six weeks, including training time at 300 locations around the county, according to Foechterle.
“We reduced the complexity of the hardware and thus the service challenges,” said Foechterle, explaining some of the other benefits of overhauling its approach to document management.
“We’re down to four models (with a common interface) from 12 models with eight different interfaces. And, with dedicated copy rooms and a couple of high speed color models, we’ve been able to eliminate our older color copiers and the associated costs for accessories and service.
“The MFDs are uniform – regardless of the model. Hard and soft button layouts are the same, which makes them intuitive to use,” he said.
Another facet of the new software’s efficiency is that it allows the MFDs to identify different user groups.
“When employees log in using ID cards and press the scan button, the software differentiates among user groups giving employees a customized user interface and access to specific workflows. Additionally, we can easily audit user activity and send confirmations back to the user and / or department manager, making the device person-specific and providing a high level of efficiency and security,” Foechterle said. “Previously a user had to be close to a particular machine. Now, anywhere in the county or at any machine, a personalized profile will pop up.”
A glimpse of some of the system’s benefits can be seen in the new workflow implemented for the Community Services Board (CSB), which depends on a HIPAA-compliant health management system. The CSB, as a part of the county’s Human Services division, deals with situations that may involve issues such as intellectual disabilities or substance abuse. The software allows users to scan documents into a HIPAA compliant folder which is locked down and accessible to only certain individuals.
“When users have become comfortable with the new system, we’ll actually grab their documents, convert them to PDF format and store them in their backend database,” explains Foechterle.
Another plus generated by the software is a more seamless integration into an electronic fax system.
“There are a lot of hidden costs in maintaining fax machines – toner, paper, maintenance, and phone lines,” Foechterle says. “When you change these machines out for an electronic system with processing software that feeds documents directly into workflows, you’re saving a lot of money.”
Another capability of the system is Smarticket. Employees at the Fairfax County Registrar and Office of Elections, for instance, place a Smarticket customized bar-coded cover sheet on a stack of documents (generally absentee ballots) that will scan, apply OCR (i.e., convert to PDF format) and store documents on a shared network. Smarticket then sends to a list of individuals an email with a hyperlink to documents for their review. Legally all documents must be reviewed before being posted to a public site.
For tracking, the software provides the county with integration to a cost accounting solution that keeps track of the number of impressions going through the MFDs, who is creating them and what function has occurred, i.e., printing, copying, or faxing. This allows accurate tracking of information to be billed back to specific departments.
County Saves Money, Speeds Delivery to Constituents
The cost savings have been significant for Fairfax County, even if they amount to rounding errors for federal agencies. They are however indicative of the kind of savings government agencies can expect. Since implementing this project, the county has seen a radical drop in the copying of paper documents and a corresponding increase in scanned documents – as planned.
The county estimates the implementation will result in annual savings of at least $35,000-$40,000 a year. Additional savings are expected in replacing fax machines, which over 5 years cost about $2,000, according to Foechterle. “When that’s multiplied by hundreds of machines and you change them out for an electronic fax, that’s a huge savings,” he says.
But the real savings is in the increase in efficiencies and ability to respond more quickly to constituents – and the fact the fleet of equipment can be managed centrally and maintained proactively.
“Our mission is to best serve the citizens of Fairfax County,” notes Foechterle. “We have learned to be innovative and cost efficient while speeding up delivery of services quickly and securely. We see the software as the ‘backbone’ of this implementation because it has allowed us to do so much – easily and securely – and we’ve just begun to scratch the surface of what this system is capable of providing. “