Magazine Article | April 1, 2001


Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Regardless of what you may think, the government feels as much pressure as you do when it comes to increasing efficiency and improving customer care. Document imaging, mass storage, and the Internet go a long way to accomplishing both objectives.

Integrated Solutions, April 2001

"I wonder if there are things we can and should do that would lead to more efficient operations, that would overcome the personnel limitations that will always be with us, and most importantly, better serve the many constituencies that rely on us for the services that we provide. Going a step further, I firmly believe that as we open information access to more and more constituents...we will create an even greater demand and perhaps not be able to meet such a demand. Thus, we must become more proficient and proactive through better use of information technology."

- Col. John W. Ripley, USMC (Ret), director of the Marine Corps History & Museums division (June, 2000)

All businesses share at least one common goal. Regardless of size or vertical market, all companies constantly strive to improve performance. It may be a slight increase in the number of widgets you can manufacturer per day. It might be the gain of a percentage point in shipping accuracy. It might be an overall reduction in the amount of your annual network downtime. It gets back to the same general business challenge - take less time to produce a better product and offer an increasingly higher level of customer care. It is really the 10 commandments of business packed into a single edict.

While no one would ever accuse the government of being a particularly nimble institution, it is starting to take some cues from the private sector. The above remarks from Col. John W. Ripley, director of the Marine Corps History & Museums division, could have been lifted from the remarks of almost any company president or CEO. The government's move to embrace technology not only increases access by its customers (read: you and me), but it also has the potential to slash millions of dollars from annual budgets.

The government played a large role in establishing the Internet in the early days, but only now are many government agencies planning to leverage this technology. For the Marine Corps, this means converting millions and millions of hard copy documents to electronic images. Ultimately, these digital images will be accessible online. In terms of saving money, however, the conversion of documents will allow the Marine Corps History & Museums division to operate more efficiently with other government agencies. This will result in hard-dollar savings through the elimination of mailing charges, copying expenses, and dedicated records research. "Col. Ripley set forth the challenge. He wants us to do a better job with fewer resources. How can we accomplish this goal? The obvious answer is with IT," states Fred Graboske, head of the archives for the Marine Corps History & Museums division (Washington).

Are Your Paper Archives Intimidating?
To paraphrase an ancient proverb to fit the daunting task facing the Marine Corps History & Museums division, "A journey of 10 million documents begins with a single page." If your assessment of the government is that it is a paper-intensive environment, then talking with Fred Graboske would do nothing to change your mind. For instance, Marine Corps records from operations ranging from the Boxer Rebellion to Kosovo exist in the traditional paper format. When you add them all up, you're talking about several million pages that are currently stored in one-cubic-foot boxes at the Washington National Records Center. And, this is just a pittance of the total number of documents housed at the National Records Center. The facility has 22 bays that are each roughly the size of a football field. In each of the bays, shelves are stacked 14 rows high, upon which 3 million one-cubic-foot boxes rest undisturbed. Each of those boxes holds 2,500 pages, so the total number of archived pages is staggering. (Actually, it's about 7.5 billion). "The National Records Center is really the grandfather of all records centers. It is huge," remarks Graboske. "Think back to the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. That is what the National Records Center looks like."

Compared to the National Records Center, the Marine Corps History & Museums division operations seem small in scope. However, it is the work at these such agencies that will ultimately ease the flow of paper into the National Records Center. For instance, every Marine Corps unit has reported its operations since 1965 through what are called command chronologies. These command chronologies are sent every six months during peacetime and every month if a unit is in combat. Looking at the Vietnam War, for example, the Marine Corps Research Center had to image more than 1 million pages. For the Gulf War, there were almost 400,000 pages.

Before the records can be imaged and made accessible online, every page must be declassified by the historians on staff at the Marine Corps Research Center. It is at this point where technology meets some employee resistance not unlike what is found in the private sector. The center recently finished a large declassification project of 450,000 pages that were reviewed. The total cost for reviewing the hard-copy documents was $90,000 or 20 cents per page. To review the same amount of pages in digital form would run about $1.00 per page. "For our review purposes, it is just quicker to work with paper than staring at documents on a screen. You can scan through pages very quickly. With a scanned image, you have to constantly scroll down. It's like reading a book. It's easier to read the hard copy than one stored digitally," adds Graboske. Adding to the problem is that among historians at the Marine Corps History & Museums division, technology is something of a taboo. The historians want the original documentation in all cases. They want to hold the paper. Adds Graboske, "The historians will have to come around on this issue. They can have access to all the data they need, it will just be in a digital form. If I can transfer all the hard-copy documents to the National Archives, then all the requests for hard-copy documents go to the National Archives as well."

Software Chokes The Flow Of Documents
The drive to image historical records will result in significant time and money savings for the Marine Corps History & Museums division, but the original concept was really brought forth out of necessity. The paper from 20th century records up to and including the Korean War was very acidic and became brittle over time. This left the division with only two choices. First, the center could do nothing and the records would continue to deteriorate and be lost over time. Or, the documents could be carefully scanned and the digital images preserved forever. While the correct course of action was simple, finding the funding was another story altogether. Even though he struck out in his efforts to get funding from the National Park Service, Graboske did get the attention of his superiors in the Marine Corps who freed up $250,000 in end-of-year fiscal money. Armed with a budget, the Marine Corps preserved the Korean War operational records and a portion of records from the Vietnam War.

With a dedicated preservation budget the following year, the Marine Corps History & Museums division set out to preserve another 700,000 pages from the Vietnam War. Keeping in mind that the people accessing the records online would not be computer savvy, the center needed an imaging software that also offered bulletproof search-and-display capabilities. In an earlier project, the government's contractor was using a proprietary technology; Graboske was intent on not repeating that mistake. Instead, the government chose Alchemy from IMR (Englewood, CO). Coincidentally, the government's new contractor for this project was an IMR partner. "We still licensed the software ourselves," says Graboske. "It cost us an extra $25,000, but it was definitely worth it. Alchemy is now a standard for the Marine Corps, and we will use it for all projects in the future."

And, there is no shortage of conversion projects for the Marine Corps History & Museums division. Here is a quick look at the to-do list facing the center: more than 8,500 oral interviews and accompanying 100,000 pages of transcripts; 600,000 remaining pages from the Vietnam War; 400,000 pages from World War II, 400,000 pages from smaller humanitarian missions; and 400,000 digital images from the Gulf War to be declassified. And, if there is money leftover, the Marine Corps History & Museums division would then like to image opponents' records. "It sometimes feels like this is a never ending project," says Graboske. "The ultimate goal, however, is to convert the Marine Corps to electronic record keeping. That will dramatically decrease the flow of paper back and forth." To this end, the Marine Corps is testing an electronic record keeping software in use at the Department of the Navy. TRIM, from Tower Software (Reston, VA), may be deployed with one of the deployed Marine Corps units as early as this summer.

Government LearnsFrom Private Industry
Jumping on the e-government bandwagon not only opens up information to the general public, but it also makes the Marine Corps History & Museums division a much more efficient operation. Handling information requests from private citizens is only a small portion of the center's activities. Its largest customer is the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs), which handles claims filed by veterans at the two dozen regional offices scattered throughout the United States. These claims get forwarded to the Marine Corps History & Museums division where the center's employees try to fill in the blanks for the VA and the veterans.

For example, a veteran makes a post-traumatic stress syndrome claim at a regional VA office. Instead of forwarding only the information about where and when a veteran served, the VA often sends voluminous amounts of superfluous material to the Marine Corps History & Museums division. After wading through the documentation, which ranges from a few pages to 50 pages, the center locates the material requested by the VA. Using the Department of Defense FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) guidelines (100 free pages and two hours of research), the center copies the requested information and sends it to the VA. For additional information that exceeds the free service, the Department of Defense obligates that the person requesting information pay 15 cents per page and $25 per hour for research. "There is a cost to us in time, copying, and mailing. Plus, there is also a lag time in responding to these requests. Right now, it takes about 4 to 5 weeks to respond to a request. Then, there is another week in mailing time," comments Graboske. "We believe we can eliminate these operational costs and cut down on response time."

To accomplish this objective, the Marine Corps History & Museums division will place its imaged files online and make them accessible to the VA. Or, the division's databases will be burned to CDs and a set will be given to the VA so it can do its research in-house. This process would eliminate requests for more information by the VA because it would have all of the information that the Marine Corps History & Museums division has. Veterans get better and faster results. The Marine Corps History & Museums division and the VA save money. How could this proposition fail? Well, it hasn't failed. But, it has fallen on deaf ears.

For one thing, the project proposed by the Marine Corps History & Museums division would require the VA's support in terms of money for Web site infrastructure and maintenance for the first two years. After that, the center would be on its own. "The VA has a $24 billion budget. We want them to pick up the tab for the first couple of years for the Web site and pay for the technical support in getting the Vietnam records online. After that, we will assume responsibility. When we get the records online, this will have a very dramatic and positive affect on the services that the VA provides," says Graboske. "When we actually have the images scanned and complete, I am going to tell the VA that we will not answer its mail after a specified date. They can then do what they want. If they want to talk, then we'll talk. But, it's getting to be put up or shut up time."

Graboske is reaching that point where many private companies have already been and many more are also heading. In this case, government is not much different than private industry. Both entities need their partners to work in concert to make operations more efficient. Whether it's finesse or a mandate, the end goal is the same - take less time to produce a better product and offer an increasingly higher level of customer care.

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