Written by Tim Wacker
Almost a quarter century ago, when most municipalities were rummaging through file cabinets and sifting through folders for specific documents, and the internet was still in the future (to say nothing of “cloud computing”), the District of Mission in British Columbia became an early adopter of an electronic document management system to organize its documents and files.
Today, while many municipalities are still searching for documents stored in dozens of file cabinets, the District of Mission has done away with its electronic system and replaced it with an enterprise content management system (ECM) that has helped it to organize and make searchable more than a million documents.
Out with Lotus Notes, in with Laserfiche
The old system was scanning-intensive, and demanded a time-and-effort commitment to attach files. There was much duplication, a slew of issues with file formats, and it became challenging to search for anything. Worse, the organization’s Freedom of Information (FOI) processes were at risk of not meeting legal obligations. “We were one of the first municipalities doing electronic document management back then,” said District of Mission IT Manager Chris Knowles. “But we were just using our own naming conventions and own organizational structure.”
Part of the problem was that Lotus Notes, the software that had made possible the great leap forward in 1993, allowed everyone in the organization to file anywhere and everywhere. There was no consistency in document naming or indexing. “It was turning into a bit of a free for all,” Knowles observed.
The IT department, which manages the documents of nearly all of the municipality’s departments, sought a solution that was fully compliant with the most demanding document security standards and that had a track record. Ideally, the system would live up to British Columbia’s Local Government Management Association (LGMA) standards.
After a closed RFP process, the District of Mission turned to Ricoh Canada, a reseller of Laserfiche ECM. Ricoh recommended the software designers Rio Product, as its flexible licensing structure allows the government to expand, or shrink, its use without having to negotiate a new contract. Their ECM system was compliant with HIPAA and supported LGMA standards, while its robust search engine and indexing abilities promised to significantly ease compliance with Freedom of Information Act and Local Government Act mandates. “We went through a pre-qualification process and then a closed RFP invite process,” Knowles said. “Rio proved the best fit for our needs.”
Map and Classify
Choosing Laserfiche was the easy part. Before installing it, the team created a system to migrate a million or more records from its old electronic document management and classification system. First, it used a spreadsheet to map out the project and figure out where things existed in Lotus Notes. Next, it had to decide where it was going to reside on the new system and how to get it there.
Then it was time for cleanup and document destruction before moving on to setting-up servers and actually building migration scripts. Because there wasn’t any document naming when the District of Mission used Lotus Notes and because not all employees understood the district’s records retention schedules, the organization needed to carefully control the ways in which employees filed records into the new system.
Officers of Primary Responsibility (OPRs) were designated for each department and they are the main licensees of the technology and the guardians of the new standards and filing methods for city records within each department. The OPRs had to review the information then manage the filing. In so doing, the organization maintained control over the consistency of the filing, while still enabling staff to deposit items into folders.
Taking the plunge
With implementation now complete, the organization has indexing templates for all of its LGMA sections and can file directly from MS Office applications, which has streamlined the process. Soon, the plan is to use Ricoh copiers to enable users to send incoming documents directly into the filing system. Quickfields, another software module built into the system, will automatically extract the indexing information, called metadata, from each document allowing for easier automation of new business processes that are still being done in paper, such as invoices.
“Every area of the municipality has migrated to the new system,” Knowles said. “The financial savings, both realized and potential, are tremendous when you think of the global impact of the solution and the value/effectiveness realized through its adoption throughout the government.”
Mission is not the only local government trying to keep pace with the adoption of the latest technology. Government professionals say they plan to invest in core technologies in 2015 as a way to keep up with ever-changing technology, according to a December 2014 survey of more than 330 local government IT and communications professionals across North America.
In fact, more than one-third of respondents said they plan to boost their tech budgets by 10 percent to 19 percent over the next five years, according to the survey commissioned by Vision Internet to identify “What’s Next in Digital Communications for Local Government.”
The top three technology investments by government in 2015 are social media with 49 percent, content management systems with 42 percent and mobile government with 32 percent.
Of course, no major conversion goes without some tough lessons learned along the way.
For example, Knowles advises that other municipalities considering the move to ECM systems should remember to get the indexing down first before introducing others to it, especially with migration. The District of Mission learned that lesson the hard way when it began training before the database was fully populated. “In hindsight it wasn’t a good idea and was a step backwards in the buy-in and we had to do damage control until we had that sorted out,” Knowles said.
Knowles also suggests forming a records management committee with representatives from all of the various departments who can provide input on the design and development of the project and the training along the way. “Having their input was critical,” Knowles said. “A lot of customization of the system really launched us from struggle to success and now it’s delivering solutions they really like.”
For those government agencies that are on the fence, Knowles had some advice: People should not hesitate getting started for fear of getting stuck, because the expertise, technical support, and resources are out there to get organizations through all the bumps along the way. “And there will be bumps,” Knowles says. “We had things we had to tweak, fix and redesign as is the case with any major project.”
Savings and Innovation
Now that the District of Mission has found and implemented a simple interface so that employees no longer have to sift through decades’ worth of records, everybody has migrated over to the new file system and Lotus Notes has been turned off.
Knowles said it will be difficult to quantify the return on its investment because the benefits and efficiencies run through the entire business unit. Instead, this transformation of systems must be evaluated in light of the reduction of risk in terms of legal liability with FOI compliance and the saving of employees’ time. “It’s difficult to quantify but the ease with which people can accomplish tasks reduces frustration, increases productivity and customer service,” Knowles said. “All of these add up to a whole lot of value both monetary and intangible.”
The District of Mission has officially completed Phase One, a nearly two-year task when planning and training are brought into consideration. The next step, which will start with Human Resources, is to leverage the power of the new system to improve efficiency. The plan is to add collaboration spaces, work with approvals and workflow and delve into each department of Mission from Public Works and Fire/Rescue to Parks and Recreation and Economic Development find paper processes that can be replaced by the new system.
The District of Mission has long been at the forefront of government innovation. It dates back more than a century as the site of British Columbia’s first rail link to the United States. Mission is home of one of the first hydroelectric dams and the site of one of the first Fraser River bridges. It also clearly at the forefront of eliminating as much paper as possible from government service.
Tim Wacker is a technical writer for NBN Communications, a writing and research services company.