By Shaun Mulholland
In 2013, Allenstown, New Hampshire (4,300 population), began to digitize all of its paper files and streamline the town’s administrative processes. Before this, paperwork and processes were antiquated and inefficient.
The town initially focused on its accounts payable process. It formed a LEAN team—the LEAN process was developed by Toyota Corporation to enhance efficiency by eliminating wasted time and processes—to study the current accounts payable processes and develop new ones where needed. In other words, more value for residents with fewer town resources used. It then addressed the digitization of public records, including meeting minutes, property files, and public access to agenda packets for the town’s various boards.
The LEAN analysis indicated several limiting factors. The use of paper documents resulted in wasted time and resources, and the inability of staff and officials to access paper documents in a timely fashion added time to complete processes. Such costs as paper, copying, filing, mailing, check processing, and transporting documents were adding up for the town.
The most economical and efficient solution was a paperless system; however, this required digital processes that were new to the staff. Technological solutions needed to be added to Allenstown’s growing IT infrastructure to achieve desired efficiencies.
The town implemented a virtual private cloud for all departments. It selected a vendor for this process, which allowed for all departments to work collaboratively on a common platform.
Prior to this, departments operated on independent computer servers located in each of their respective buildings. These systems were eliminated when programs and data were transferred to the cloud.
Another major factor that impaired efficiency was the need for signatures on various documents. The town solved the problem by implementing an electronic signature process, which relies on two providers.
RightSignature is the primary Web-based tool used to sign documents electronically. SeamlessGov is another solution used for creating documents with an electronic signature application.
The Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (ESIGN) passed by Congress on June 30, 2000, allows for the use of electronic signatures in commerce and government activities.
There are, however, some key documents in which a party can require inked signatures, including contracts. A review of 15 U.S.C. 7001 (United States Code, 2006 Edition, Supplement 4, Title 15 - COMMERCE AND TRADE) is advised when considering the implementation of electronic signature processes.
Most documents executed by Allenstown’s officials are done by electronic signature. This allows for a document to be reviewed by multiple signatories at the same time from their respective locations.
Members of the board of selectmen are able to sign documents remotely with town-issued computer tablets. Documents originating in paper form, which are scanned as documents that are solely digital, are amenable to electronic signature processes.
Electronic signatures provide such security features as a checksum for detecting digital errors or a digital fingerprint. Arguably, these digital security measures are more effective than inked signatures. The checksum provides the date and time the document was signed and the IP address of the device on which the document was signed.
It’s a common perception that an inked signature is easier to verify. The reality is quite different. Proving a forgery case based upon handwriting analysis is less than a perfect science. Handwriting experts also are hard to find. This is especially true in most states that rely upon state-level forensic laboratories for analysis.
There are states—as is the case in New Hampshire—that do not have a handwriting analyst at the state police forensic lab. They rely upon the FBI lab, which has threshold requirements and a long waiting period.
The second issue for accounts payable was the method by which the town received invoices and paid them. Invoices were being received by mail in a paper format. Checks would then be cut and mailed to the vendor.
To change this process, the town created a dedicated e-mail account to receive invoices from vendors, and it also implemented electronic fund transfers to pay them. With this method, we were able to receive invoices and pay vendors with a turnaround time of seven days or less. Prior to that, vendors were paid on average within 30 days.
We also worked with vendors to agree to send the town electronic invoices and transfer payment to their bank accounts by electronic fund transfer. Most vendors agreed to participate in this process, as it allowed for faster receipt of payment.
The accounts payable process we use now is documented by digital files only. The process took approximately seven months to implement. There were several phases of the process: identification of problem, analysis of solutions, testing of solutions, training of personnel, and actual implementation.
Despite the somewhat detailed and lengthy process, we still had problems that had to be addressed after implementation; fortunately, these were relatively minor. One of the issues was the criticality of naming conventions for the documents to allow for ease of search.
Another issue was the need for Adobe Acrobat Professional software, which allows for the ability to combine documents. An example would be a scanned invoice and a Word or scanned purchase order that need to be combined into one document. I would recommend having a detailed process in place before venturing into such a major transition.
Digitization of Property Files
While it streamlined the accounts payable process, the town contracted with Ricoh to digitize all property files. This included planning, zoning, and building files. Ricoh picked up the Allenstown files at town hall and transported them to their office facility.
It scanned the files into PDF documents, and then indexed and transferred them to our cloud. This step required minimal input from staff to address files and documents, which the vendor was unable to interpret.
All departments now have access to property files; before these files had only been available in paper format at town hall. This availability is particularly useful to firefighters, police officers, and public works personnel in the field, as they can access the files on a 24/7 basis.
Digitization of the files also allows instant access by staff at town hall as well as personnel in the field and at other town facilities. This access reduces staff time and the ability to have access to information more quickly, allowing for decisions to be made faster.
We frequently receive requests from the public for these documents. Previously, a staff person had to manually search through various paper files for requested documents. This took time and generally required a staff person copying the documents to provide them to the requesting party.
Staff can now search for the file by address, map and lot number, or key word search and quickly e-mail documents to the requester. The files are optical character reader (OCR) enabled, meaning that typed, handwritten, or printed text is converted into machine-encoded text allowing for the search of key words within PDF documents.
The speed with which the staff can search and provide those documents to a requestor saves the town money and allows the individuals faster access to needed information. The best thing about this is that it also enhances the speed by which commerce can be transacted.
The next phase of the public documents process is still under review. Allowing access to the files by the general public 24/7 through a Web portal on our website would be the next step, allowing the public to access documents when they wish to without the need for assistance from town staff.
We are currently examining two solutions. Documall and SeamlessGov have Web applications for this purpose. Documall has a solution that has been in use for some time, and SeamlessGov has a pilot program with Jersey City, New Jersey, currently under way.
We are still in the exploratory phase of our analysis and will need to carefully look at the cost-benefit delta—ratio of the change in price to the increase in value provided by the service—before we implement this next phase of our efficiency project.
The system Allenstown created is not a software or Web application. It is simply a set of folders listed under a property folder on one of our drives on the cloud. The folders are identified by map/lot number and address. Each of the 1,900 properties within the town has its own folder. The applicable documents for each property are located within the individual folders.
This is a relatively low-tech solution as well as low in cost to implement and maintain. Communities have software applications for document management. Ours is low cost and a relatively inexpensive solution, which may be attractive for smaller jurisdictions with limited budgets.
A similar process was used for accounts payable as the accounting software that was being used was unable to store the digital documents. The system of electronic folders we created was far more efficient than paper folders and achieved measurable cost savings.
The accounting system we had was unable to allow for electronic signatures in the approval process. We have since transitioned to Tyler Technologies’ Infinite Visions software. It provides both electronic signature approval processes and storage of invoices, statements, and shipping documents within the accounting software application.
Public Meeting Documents
When I served as a department head, I remember attending various board meetings and listening to board members discuss community issues. They had access to the applicable documents that were being referenced; however, members of the public could only ascertain bits and pieces of the issue because they did not have access to the same documents. This was a noted shortfall in our effort to achieve more open government.
Our consolidated town website managed by Virtual Towns & Schools (VTS) provides a tool that allows for a system of indexed documents to be attached to the agenda for all board, committee, and commission meetings. This allows the staff to make these documents available to the public when the agenda is posted on the website.
VTS also has a subscriber option that allows members of the public to subscribe to agendas posted for various meetings at the website. When an agenda is posted, the subscriber receives an e-mail with a link to the agenda and attached indexed documents for the meeting.
Residents who attend board meetings with their tablets and smartphones are able to access these documents at the meetings. We also find this is a helpful tool for our land-use board meetings. Owners of property that abuts with another property, commercial interests, and residents are all able to review plans and proposals prior to and during the meeting.
Previously, someone would either have to come to town hall to review the plans or attend a meeting and crowd around the paper plans to get an understanding of what was being proposed. This provides another tool to allow for meaningful participation by informed residents, and it is another step in our overall goal of making more information available to the public faster.
I think most local government managers feel the pressure to try to keep up with the latest hardware and software when it comes to technology. We have applied an approach in Allenstown that is not specifically focused on the implementation of technology, but more on the analysis of efficiency.
Solutions to problems that can increase efficiency in many cases involve the implementation of new technologies—at least new to us in Allenstown. We have found through staff analysis of various issues that technology is usually just part of a solution.
The staff has also found in several cases that although a new technological solution may provide increased efficiency, it may not be the most cost effective to implement at a particular time.
Shaun Mulholland is town administrator, Allenstown, New Hampshire (firstname.lastname@example.org).