From e-forms to workflow

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When sales representatives from Adobe Systems Inc. and Microsoft Corp. come calling to chat about electronic forms, they will say that e-forms and workflow are closely intertwined.

The 1998 Government Paperwork Elimination Act requires agencies to replace paper forms with electronic ones wherever possible.

Agencies must also enable electronic interactions with the public. In 2003, citizens and businesses spent about 8.2 billion hours and $320 billion to collect and submit data to the federal government, according to the Office of Management and Budget's Final Report of the Small Business Paperwork Relief Task Force.

Once forms are rendered electronically, it's an easy jump, vendors say, to map out the path from one agency worker to the next. Even a form itself can change appearance as it moves from user to user.

'Think about a paper leave request,' said Philo Janus, a Microsoft Office federal representative. The paper travels from desk to desk, and the requesting party can't tell whether it has been approved or where it is.

Electronic workflow eliminates the need to physically move a form from one place to another, as well as keep the employee aware of its status.

Both Adobe and Microsoft have added workflow components to their e-forms suites.

Workflow Server and Workflow Designer are part of Adobe's LiveCycle suite, which can route forms in Adobe Portable Document Format along paths set up by an administrator. When one party fills out a section of a form and hits the submit button, it is routed to the next party.

The Adobe suite also tracks who has opened or read a document to authenticate approvals and identify who made changes, said Mike Singer, Adobe senior director of worldwide government e-paper solutions. A form can be designed so that individuals see only the parts of a form relevant to them.

The last feature proved particularly useful to Nevada's State Welfare Division, said Gary Stagliano, deputy administrator for program and field operations.

The state's electronic workflow system uses PDFs for basic forms. The developers wrote conditional logic trees for each form to determine how much a user should see, based on which boxes the user checks.

'We decided to eliminate things the users didn't have any ability to change,' Stagliano said. 'If they checked only one box, the final presentation of that document would show only that one element.'

Microsoft's InfoPath also has some basic workflow capabilities, Janus said, although complex workflow must be mapped out with Microsoft's BizTalk 2004 Server. BizTalk makes such decisions as whether to reroute a document that sits in an inbox for more than 24 hours, stop an order for an out-of-stock item or send the order for additional approvals if it exceeds a certain price.

InfoPath also does version control, so a Microsoft Office application that opens an InfoPath form can check for newer versions of that form online.

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