Collaborative Input Capability Shortens Government Paper Trail

May 2000
By Henry S. Kenyon

Online aid streamlines review methods, speeds consensus-building process.

A World Wide Web-based document coordination tool developed for the U.S. Army has become available for the entire federal government. The system enables multiple users to review a directive or regulation posted on a Web or intranet site and enter their comments. The recorded information is then used to modify the document efficiently as it moves toward completion.

Like federal agencies, the Army generates tens of thousands of documents a year, including reports, directives, regulations, and position and policy statements. This paperwork goes through a review and comment process as various stakeholders analyze and input information. The data is then acted upon, changes are made in the document, and it is made available for more comments until it is officially released. When performed with traditional paper-based methods, this process is time consuming and manpower intensive.

Recent changes in the government’s business processes coupled with nearly a decade of staff reductions in the U.S. Defense Department have prompted administrators to seek new ways to leverage existing personnel. E-commerce initiatives and other ideas have been imported from the private sector and modified to meet specific federal requirements. These developments help spur movement away from stovepipe technologies and rigid procedures to flexible, interconnected information systems.

According to Dr. Linda S. Dean, director of the Army Electronic Commerce Office, Washington, D.C., the document coordination system (DCS) originated in the early 1990s as part of a defense management reform directive for consolidating defense publishing business processes. Then called the defense electronic publication management system, it was intended as an end-to-end system for use across the Defense Department. However, the directive was never fully implemented. Instead, a follow-on initiative using part of the larger program and dealing specifically with document coordination and staffing was moved to the prototype stage in 1996. This ultimately evolved into the DCS, which was designed as a Web-based application. Dean notes that internal testing of the prototype began in early 1998.

The software fits in with a major goal of the Army’s e-commerce initiative, which is to implement a virtual working environment. The DCS minimizes the need for face-to-face meetings to develop and coordinate the content of an organization’s documents. Dean notes that the Army used an earlier DCS prototype to coordinate and finalize its formal policy on e-commerce and its electronic commerce/electronic business implementation plan. Some 40 Army organizations located around the world were involved. These efforts helped prove the concept for the DCS and resulted in improvements to both its functionality and its technical implementation, she says.

As a tool, the DCS also fits into the Army’s definition of e-commerce, which goes beyond traditional buying and selling and encompasses all administrative work-related processes. “Part of the Army’s nonwarfighting business is coordinating policies, procedures and regulations. Basically, we look at document control systems as enhancing electronic business,” Dean shares.

The Army partnered with SRA International Incorporated, Fairfax, Virginia, to help develop the DCS. Jim Schneider, an SRA principal and a technical lead on the Army’s e-commerce effort, notes that one of the main improvements the service wanted from the system was the flexibility to divide up a document in any number of ways. Other existing systems did not feature this flexibility. This was important because a large document might be segmented differently, and users may have to comment at the section or subsection level, he notes.

Another requirement was the ability to allow users to view each other’s comments. This was critical because cross checking both aided and slowed down the old paper-based method. Frank Varacalli, SRA’s project manager for the Army electronic commerce project, explains that “one of the biggest time sinks in the coordination process is getting a set of comments back from individuals, modifying the document and sending it out for a second round. You will go through this iteration countless times. With DCS, you can see everybody’s comments, and you can go back in and review them and modify your own based on the input. It really shortens or reduces the number of iterations you need to go through.”

While the document is in the review process, the main text is protected from any accidental changes. Only the person posting the document has the authority to input modifications. Varacalli adds that this only extends to the core document. Users are free to add, withdraw or change their comments in reaction to another’s input.

Passwords provide security. When a document is loaded into the system, a list of all reviewers is generated, and they are then notified by e-mail through the system. Each person is assigned an identification number and a temporary password that is exchanged for a permanent one the first time he or she logs in. The software provides security and control over the reviewers by allowing only specified individuals into the process.

In its current release form, the DCS is a Web-based tool that permits organizations to coordinate and comment on the content of various documents from any place in the world at any time. Because reviewers can read other users’ comments and make their own recommendations based on this information, the software speeds reaching consensus on any document, Dean says. Individuals responsible for adjudicating comments on the document can resolve them online, accept or revise suggestions and automatically establish a formal record of the coordination process, including any actions they have taken.

“Probably the greatest advantage DCS offers is that reviewers can benefit from seeing others’ comments as they enter their own. As additional individuals provide their remarks in DCS, any participant can go back and change his or her entry at any time up to the deadline. This reflects the additional knowledge derived from viewing this information,” she says.

The system accommodates documents in the three primary Microsoft Office formats—Word, Excel and Power Point—allowing the action officer to upload most files easily and simply. The action officer can divide a document into any number of logical sections to make it easy for a reviewer to examine relevant portions. This approach also aids analysts trying to resolve conflicts because the focus of any recommendation within a section is limited, Dean says.

The DCS features a graphical user interface with common Windows functions such as cut and paste. This allows review participants to propose revisions to the sections of the document easily.

The software is designed to be operated with a minimum amount of familiarization or training. A Java-driven navigation tree is located on the left side of the screen while the document appears in a window to the right. According to Schneider, this prevents users from switching between multiple browser windows because everything they need is placed on one page.

The system also features a viewer-activated demonstration that walks potential users through various roles, Varacalli explains. For example, to use the software as an analyst, reviewers can step through those specific functions and screens, learn how to load documents and comment on them.

A full-context help feature with the Microsoft hypertext markup language help package is also available. Schneider adds that users can employ this to index and search for specific functions. However, he believes that this is more of a backup than a primary reference source because the DCS, like much new software, is designed for immediate use. “My experience with Web applications is that people are not looking at user guides anymore. They want them to be intuitive—to jump in. They may look at a tutorial or a presentation, but they want to get right into it,” he says.

The software can operate over the Internet or on an intranet. On the client side, the DCS requires a personal computer with Microsoft Office, an Internet connection and a standard Web browser such as Netscape Navigator 4.0 or Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0.

Dean believes the DCS has helped increase the Army’s productivity. Based on experience using the tool compared to paper-based reviews, the Army estimates an approximate 78-to-1 reduction in the time required to coordinate a large document—anything exceeding 100 pages. She notes that this savings comes from eliminating both the need to reproduce and distribute copies of the document under review and the requirement to prepare a separate report recording the coordination process. Efficiency is aided by a built-in automated system that notifies participants via e-mail. “The Army views DCS as an administrative force multiplier because it allows us to accomplish our reviews more quickly and with less labor,” she explains.

The software has potential applications anywhere in the federal government where documents are generated and reviewed. For example, the Federal Register lends itself to this type of tool because of its comment period, Dean notes. Taken to its logical extension, even the legislative and executive branches could benefit from using the DCS in developing the annual national budget. She notes that collectively, most government organizations could benefit from the system through its collaborative features that speed the work of reaching consensus on almost any topic.

Coordination for distribution of the DCS throughout the government is handled by the Army’s electronic commerce Web page, where the software can be downloaded for free. To facilitate other organizations’ use of the tool, the site includes an overview of the DCS; a list of frequently asked questions about the software; a self-running, narrated briefing; a viewer-activated demonstration; and instructions on how to download.

Dean believes that it is too early to get a clear picture of who is planning to use the program. However, requests have already come in from the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and several major Army commands. Some of these requests were received before the DCS was ready for release, she notes.

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