Agencies Grapple With Unruly Web of Electronic Documents

By Athanasia D. Baker

Navy Rear Adm. Raymond Archer, vice director of the Defense Logistics Agency, believes that the government has a serious problem: It has lost control of its documents.

The advances witnessed during the past decade in information technology and the rapid proliferation of Internet-based networks have not been accompanied by any significant improvements in the processes and standards for handling digital files, Archer said in a speech during a recent conference in Columbia, Md., sponsored by the Defense Department’s Document Automation and Production Services (DAPS) and the Association for Enterprise Integration.

Lost Control
Archer noted that document management is worse today than it was in the days of the filing cabinet.

“Thirty years ago, I could ask for information on an issue, and you could show me all the information on that issue. If I walk into an organization today, I couldn’t find that. ...We’ve lost control of managing all of this information,” he said.

As an example, he cited the recent controversy over recalled chemical protection suits that had been purchased by the Defense Department for use in combat. He admitted, “If you asked me about all the correspondence and the trail on that, I couldn’t tell you.”

Steve Sherman, the deputy director of DAPS explained that the problem cannot be blamed on technology. “[It is] all the different things that surround technology that we often fail at,” he told the conference.

Sherman pointed out that the technology involved in document management changes every six months. “What that tells you,” Sherman said, “is that if you are ever standing still, you’re actually falling behind.”

The way to stay ahead, he said, is not to just focus on the technology, but to pay attention to all aspects of document evolution. “Business dictates the technology, not the other way around,” Sherman said. A document has a life cycle from conception to eventual destruction. Understanding every step will lead to successful document management, explained Sherman.

“Effective records management is a building block of successful information superiority doctrine [for the Defense Department],” said Marion Cherry, a senior systems engineer with the Architecture and Interoperability Directorate, under the Pentagon’s chief information officer.

She noted that the Army has been successful in identifying nine out of the last 13 soldiers killed in Vietnam, because it was possible to locate and access the medical records from Vietnam in a timely fashion. On the other hand, poor record management hurt the Army’s effort to trace the cause of the so-called Gulf War syndrome that many soldiers claimed to have suffered after Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Because unit-tracking records were incomplete, destroyed or non-existent, veterans’ claims of Gulf War syndrome are unable to be substantiated, said Cherry.

The Solution
Archer endorsed a return to fundamentals, such as library services, as a viable solution to the current problems the government experiences in file management. A process for sorting, storing and categorizing information and communications is “essential” for government organizations to control the information that is created electronically, he said.

Archer suggested that government agencies establish partnerships with companies that specifically deal with digital document management—not just management software companies, but companies that have the technology and have developed processes to easily search and retrieve stored data.

An expected growth in the demand for these services already has spawned a number of corporate ventures.

In 1999, NetIDEAS, based in Mt. Laurel, N.J, was formed by a group of technology professionals who previously had worked at Lockheed Martin Corporation. For a monthly fee, NetIDEAS provides the infrastructure and software needed to manage e-documents, over the Internet. All the client needs is a Web browser, said Mark DeBellis, the company’s director of collaborative solutions. He compared NetIDEAS with other Internet service providers such as America Online. The difference, he said, is that instead of using the service for online shopping and chat-rooms, customers manage and store documents. Currently, NetIDEAS has a contract with the Navy’s DD-21 next generation surface combatant program.

Document Conversion
Another important aspect to electronic data management is document conversion, officials said. Information Manufacturing Corporation (IMC), located at the Rocket Center, W.Va., specializes in converting paper-based records, microfilm, microfiche, aperture cards, engineering drawings and maps, and books to electronic formats such as CDs, floppy disks or tapes. Scott Kline, vice president of sales, said the converted data can be transferred on a secure Defense Department private network. Currently, IMC has contracts with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Naval Sea Systems Command, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, for which the company so far has converted more than 25 million images.

Xerox Corporation, meanwhile, has developed a Web-based warehouse for document distribution that provides electronic access to forms and publications. The system is being used by the Army at Fort Hood, Texas, where more than 46 million pages are distributed per year. A user can identify the document needed and view it online through Adobe’s Acrobat software or print it out at DAPS headquarters at Fort Hood. Forms can be filled out online, recorded and shared.

Technology also can make it easier for a user to navigate through a lengthy document and find the relevant information more quickly. Techniques such as tags, links to video and graphics can be added to documents such as technical manuals, said Gary Bauer, program manager for Docucon Imaging Services, in McLean, Va. The U.S. military services have embraced the so-called interactive technical manual technology, because they save the trouble of loading hundreds of pounds of paper manual every time a unit deploys. The electronic manuals can be provided on CDs or over the Web, explained Christopher Brown, project engineer for Integic Corp. of Arlington, Va.

Even though e-commerce is commonplace today, there are problems that have yet to be addressed, said Norm Hubbs, vice president of Integic.

“Linking the customer order to the fulfillment process requires discipline in customer support, supply chain management, procurement history, warehouse and inventory management, distribution and legacy system interface,” said Hubbs. The idea is not simply “to join or attach” a customer to the Web, but “to have or establish a rapport.

“Look back to last December, when a number of very frustrated shoppers, during the holiday season, placed their orders in for gifts. The lucky ones got an e-mail five to seven days later saying, ‘Sorry, we’re out of stock, [or] sorry, we’ll ship it to you in 10 days.’ The unfortunate ones found out the hard way. It never showed up.”

Web Site Integration
A company’s Web site needs to be integrated into its business processes, said Hubbs. He used the Defense Logistics Agency’s (DLA) procurement gateway as an example of a successful application connection.

DLA has supply centers located in Philadelphia, Richmond, Va., and Columbus, Ohio.

The centers are responsible for the acquisition and management of more than 4 million commodity items. To reduce acquisition and distribution costs—and administer $900 billion in contracts—DLA established a Web site for e-business. The new system is saving DLA more than $3 million annually, said Hubbs. The savings stem from increased competition, streamlined procurement process and reduced transaction costs, vendor profiling and paperless flow of documents.

The U.S. government is taking steps to introduce more e-business practices, said Jonathan Womer, from the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

“One of the first integrations of this [electronic service delivery] came from the National Performance Review ... in 1993. The idea was to go look at government programs and government policies across the federal government, and see how a change could be made, how they could be recreated,” said Womer.

In December 1999, a White House directive on e-government explained “how the federal government needs to push the idea of electronic government into the program, into the recording keeping of each individual agency,” said Womer. “Some of the principles outlined in electronic government ... were to organize services, not simply by bureaucracy, not simply by a program office, not simply by the rhetoric and the sort of scaled hierarchy that has developed in the federal government over time, but rather by the subject area that different citizens might intuitively see.”

The directive also promoted the use of digital signatures.

The Government Paperwork Elimination Act (GPEA) was passed in 1998, and the goal was to have agencies automate interactions with outside partners and customers by October of 2003. “I won’t tell you that’s going to happen either,” Womer said. “One of the loopholes in the law is ‘when practicable.’”

Topics: Electronics, Cyber, Infotech, Science and Engineering Technology

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