Charles County, MD, was named America's #1 advanced digital county last year by the Center for Digital Government and Digital Communities magazine. In fact, the Washington DC-area county with 130,000 residents has won all seven years the award's been given out. But what makes Charles County different from the other 20 Laserfiche users on the list is that the county only began its Laserfiche implementation late last year. Now thanks to a comprehensive data governance strategy and a new Transparency Web Portal, Charles County is poised to continue its winning streak using Laserfiche.
Recognizing the Value of Agility Early On
When CIO Richard "Dick" Aldridge joined Charles County's IT department 10 years ago he brought a career-long belief in the value of IT-driven initiatives with him. He started by transitioning his staff from procedural RPG programming to object-oriented programming, buying his staff textbooks and leading self-study courses. "I knew we could be more than a green screen county running AS400," he says. By 2001, IT staff had written their own program for residents to pay water bills and property taxes online.
To Aldridge, it wasn't the "how?" that mattered, but the "why?" The answer was "Agility." "Agility is something we have done since day one with our Website," Aldridge says. "Businesses and constituents want to see how you're spending their tax money, so when we increase the level of service and convenience we can offer, they benefit from that agility."
Last year, for instance, this proactive approach resulted in a 350+ mile I-Net fiber-optic network built in conjunction with a local cable TV provider. I-Net not only gives 102 county locations high-speed internet access, it saves Charles County $250,000 a year by eliminating T1 lines and centralized servers, freeing up staff and space.
Discovering the Need for Data Governance
Against this backdrop of IT-driven initiatives, Aldridge saw the county had a growing problem with its enterprise risk management strategy – or lack thereof.
In a presentation to administrators at the Maryland Association of Counties, Aldridge spelled out the problem: "The 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley regulations initially served as a wake-up call for formalized document retention policies to meet compliance requirements. But regulatory demands and the number of documents produced daily continue to grow. So a solid document management process is a necessity."
Aldridge explains: "I actually started selling the idea of a document management system early – I mean really early – back in 2003. We didn't have to see the lawsuits to know the prospects were there."
In the meantime, the county's exponential population growth – from 32,000 to 150,000 in the last 20 years – increasingly made paper-based processes a problem. A series of disasters from 2002-2004, including a tornado, a fire, and hurricane, highlighted the need for a content management system. "We lost a building with a ton of paperwork that people had filed to get housing. Then the county commissioners themselves realized they could have lost their minutes, which they're supposed to keep forever," Aldridge says.
"Our basic discovery was that we just had a tremendous amount of paper," he adds.
Documents were discovered in old service stations, even water towers. There were horror stories of staff members who, while searching for documents, were bitten by paper mites. While waiting for their annual audit, the Accounting Department would find its hallways clogged with boxes of invoices and AR documents. Aldridge was frustrated. "It just irritated me for all our technology, this was happening every year."
Back in 2005, Aldridge had actually brought a content management solution before the County Commissioners ("We didn't know about Laserfiche yet," he says). "I knew my staff could use it, but I could not get buy in," he says. "People just did not want to let go of their paper." Cost was an even bigger issue, he says: when the commissioners saw the mid-six-figure price tag, they clutched their pocketbooks almost as tightly as their paper.
Getting Buy-In: The Bake-off That was No Cakewalk
With the 2007 election of new County Commissioners came the opportunity for Aldridge to re-visit its need for enterprise-wide document management. This time, Aldridge and his staff formed a likewise enterprise-wide committee from all eight county departments. "This went a long way to ensure user buy-in," he says.
Then the real work began: comprehensive, day-long presentations by each vendor using county documents and processes to show exactly how their solution would be used. "We called it ‘the bake-off' because we didn't want the vendors to describe their solution, we wanted to taste it," says Aldridge.
Virginia based reseller Unity Business Systems presented Laserfiche to unanimous approval. "Laserfiche looked like the Windows environment we're used to using, so our committee members understood what they were seeing," explains IT Application Manager Evelyn Jacobson.
Besides its user-friendliness, Jacobson says the county purchased Laserfiche ECM both for its cost-effectiveness but also the fact that so many other municipalities were using it – including over 40 of her fellow Digital Cities and Counties winners. "The first thing all the commissioners and administrators asked was, ‘Where else is this being used?' And being able to point to so many other municipalities like [nearby] Fairfax County who had gone through this same process and chosen it gave the commissioners an immediate confidence in Laserfiche."
Planning an Information Management Strategy with an Eye Towards Interoperability
Aldridge's vision for the new system was to get rid of its immediate paper problems, but do so in a way that mitigated future compliance risk:
- The county purchased Laserfiche Records Management Edition specifically for its ability to automate back-end records retention schedules in accordance with Maryland's state archiving policies, while still allowing users the flexibility to search and access records easily. (Easily enough, in fact, that the county's Accounting Chief will act as Records Manager until an RM position is created.)
- The Accounting Department now uses Quick Fields to automate capture of invoices and Laserfiche Workflow to automate AP processing. "It's all done using barcodes now so there's no manual entry any more – they love it," Jacobson says. "Since its implementation, we've received weekly requests from Accounting to add additional users to the Laserfiche system."
- Laserfiche implementation continues in the Planning and Growth Management department, as well as HR and the Commissioners' office.
- The county's plan, says Jacobson, is to integrate Laserfiche with the county's New World Systems public administration software in such a way that a Laserfiche button will allow staff to access documents and run reports from the current applications they're already using. "Unity Business Systems did a really good job of showing us how Laserfiche would interface with our current systems," she explains. "That was one of the things we liked about Laserfiche. Our technical staff can integrate it with our enterprise software as well as our internally developed Web applications. It's very open, and we won't have to pay for consulting every time we want to do something."
What makes this even more noteworthy is that Charles County will do this, as it has with all its other IT-driven innovations, with a staff of just 22 – about half the staff other municipalities its size employ.
For Aldridge, the potential interoperability Laserfiche offers will become even more significant as the county rolls out its Transparency Web Portal this month as part of the County Commissioners' transparency-in-government initiative, which was originated only last August. "We're very Web-based – we don't want to put applications on people's computers," Aldridge begins, noting the entire Transparency Web Portal itself took the county only a month to implement.
"One of the things we liked about Laserfiche was it offered a tremendous capability to put a button on our Transparency Web Portal. The vision is that we're not only able to store the record and automatically apply retention to it, but we'll be able to point people to the Transparency Web Portal so they can see where their tax money is being spent," Aldridge says.
"I'll use that to get number nine," he laughs, confident in Charles County's ability to keep winning Digital County awards again – and again. "The Transparency Web Portal will help us win eight next year – and then when we add Laserfiche to that, that'll be nine," he laughs. "Then I'm going to retire."
- Charles County, MD, has been named top Digital County all seven years the award has been given.
- County CIO Richard "Dick" Aldridge foresaw a growing problem with the county's lack of an enterprise risk management strategy.
- In 2007, Aldridge formed an enterprise committee to investigate content management solutions. Due to its cost-effectiveness and the fact that so many other municipalities were already using it, Laserfiche was the clear winner.
- Laserfiche Records Management Edition automates back-end records retention policies, while still allowing users the flexibility to search and access records easily.
- In the Accounting Department, Quick Fields automates invoice capture while Workflow automates AP processing.
- Laserfiche also offers the capability to add records to the County's new Transparency Web Portal, launching this month as part of the County Commissioners' transparency-in-government initiative.