Magazine Article | November 1, 2001

Driving Down The Paper Trail

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Document management software enables a regional agency to produce a 22,000-page legal record in three weeks instead of three months.

Integrated Solutions, November 2001

For government agencies, there's no escaping the consequences of maintaining public records. There will be piles of documents, both paper and electronic. Metro, the regional government in Portland, OR, is no different in that regard.

Metro coordinates services for three counties and 24 cities within the metropolitan Portland area. Its primary mandate is to manage all aspects of growth in the region, including land use planning, transportation planning, and solid waste management planning. In addition, Metro manages parks, exposition and convention centers, the Oregon Zoo, and the Portland Center for the Performing Arts. For purposes of preservation and enhanced livability, Metro also purchases green spaces. Because Metro's operations involve public lands and facilities, its records keeping procedures must follow stringent requirements set by the State of Oregon. Nearly every piece of information related to decision-making processes must be archived in preparation for subsequent public information requests.

One branch of Metro that must take a particularly painstaking approach to document management is the Metro Council, which sets policy for the agency. The council passes ordinances and resolutions, and much of the documentation must be maintained in its original paper form. The Metro Council needed a way of streamlining the retrieval process so that requests for copies could be handled more efficiently. It got help from the TRIM electronic document and information management suite from TOWER Software Corp. (Reston, VA).

Finding Every Last Scrap Of Evidence
Because of state-mandated schedules for retaining public records, the official copies of ordinances and resolutions are still printed, signed, and filed. Before the TRIM installation, however, requests for copies were processed laboriously. A staff member would locate the hard copy in the storage area, make a paper copy, and mail the document with a certified stamp. Now, in addition to being filed as hard copy originals, documents are electronically scanned into TRIM and e-mailed to constituents and staff upon request.

The streamlined process for mailing copies reveals only the surface of TRIM's contribution to document retrieval. Behind the scenes, the software is archiving all of the peripheral materials attached to the official record of the ordinance or resolution. These materials include meeting agendas, packets, minutes, committee and staff reports, and audio/video tapes. According to Becky Shoemaker, records and information analyst for Metro, these documents are cross-related by TRIM so that interested parties can review the entire decision-making process. "A constituent, staff member, or council member can access TRIM from a desktop, call up the ordinance or resolution by number, title, or adoption date and see all the related records," Shoemaker explained. "They can see how the ordinance or resolution was initiated and how it was reviewed by committees. They can study the revisions that were made as the ordinance or resolution progressed through various drafts. They can also look at historically related documents, such as the voting record of the Metro Council, as well as prior ordinances that dealt with similar issues."

Even though the Metro Council could have benefited from electronic records management long ago, it took more than just efficient copying and mailing to trigger its purchase of the TRIM package. It took a lawsuit. When Metro gets sued by constituents because of land use decisions it has made, the entire legal record must be submitted in paper form to the State of Oregon's Land Use Board of Appeals. "The straw that broke the camel's back was another pending lawsuit coming in. The council had just gone through a grueling three-month process to prepare for the last one, and it didn't want to go through that again," Shoemaker said.

For the lawsuit at hand, a 22,000-page record had to be produced. In addition to the official documents, the record had to include every piece of testimony from anyone who had weighed in on the issue. "We received a flood of submissions. Local officials and constituents mailed in their testimony, sent it by e-mail, by FAX, and hand delivered it at public meetings," Shoemaker explained. "All of those documents had to be registered in TRIM." In anticipation of the need for a complete record, Shoemaker and staff assigned an identifier to each land area - for example, Urban Reserve Area 32. Since every document related to a particular area was already linked to its identifier, a TRIM report was produced showing the file location for every electronic and hard copy document needed for the case. "Whereas it used to take two to three months to prepare a record of this size, it took us only about three weeks using TRIM," Shoemaker reported.

Taking The Work Out Of Workflow
Currently, only one other branch of Metro, the Regional Environmental Management Department, is using TRIM. According to Shoemaker, however, Metro plans to take TRIM across the entire agency over the next 18 months. Once TRIM is used in all of Metro's various departments, it will facilitate more efficient document routing across the agency. "Workflow tools will enable one person in the chain to go into TRIM and see who has already signed off on a document, who it has been forwarded to, and what the deadline is for that person to move the document along," Shoemaker said. "The goal is to handle the routing and reviewing process electronically, then produce an original hard copy that would be signed, scanned, and entered into TRIM."

Shoemaker admits that there are resource, staffing, and training issues to work out before TRIM can be rolled out across Metro. Nevertheless, she is certain that it can accommodate the various documenting and reporting needs of a multi-mission agency. "The beauty of it is that you can completely customize TRIM in terms of the record forms and record types," Shoemaker said. "TRIM does make some basic demands for setting up record plans, retention schedules, record forms, and authorization levels. But, after that, the fun begins. You can create your own forms and make them as flexible as you need them to be. It's very easy."

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