Productivity software helps agencies do more with less, securely

How productivity software helps two agencies — one federal, one county — improve efficiency

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, a key goal of technological development has been to make work more efficient. That hasn’t changed in the Information Age.

A variety of software applications are available to streamline business processes, but organizations, whether government agencies or corporations, often have unique needs. How enterprises select and use software tools to enhance productivity remains a challenge. Commercial productivity tools, such as SharePoint, are common but might not deliver the customized approach an organization needs to improve operations.

Two organizations, a federal laboratory and county social services department, offer examples of different technological approaches to enhance productivity.

A research facility with a distributed and mobile workforce, the Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory uses a secure wireless data sharing technology to enhance staff productivity. Jerry Johnson, the laboratory’s CIO, said mobility is important for PNNL researchers, many of whom travel globally. When on the road, staff members must be able to access online tools such as e-mail, calendars and SharePoint.

But scientists want to use more than just a laptop PC to access e-mail messages and other information. Johnson said researchers sought more flexibility from their devices and began requesting consumer devices, such as Apple iPads and smart phones. “They become very dependent on the collaboration tools that we’ve provided for them, and they want to maintain that productivity while they’re on the road,” he said.

The facility in Richland, Wash., has a staff of about 5,000. To securely manage its mobile workforce, the laboratory chose to use a multiplatform secure enterprise mobility software system by Good Technology. The facility ran a six-month pilot program in fiscal 2010. It was released into production in August. Johnson said the pilot program was successful, both in terms of how the technology worked and how the customers accepted it.


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Johnson said functionality for some enterprise devices, such as BlackBerrys, was slightly diminished in the Good environment, but he added that users were more than willing to give up some capabilities for the increased flexibility to use other consumer devices. He also noted that only PNNL is using Good’s data sharing software, not the entire Energy Department. “While we might adopt it for our laboratory, it doesn’t mean that anybody else is going to adopt it elsewhere or that the [Energy Department] is going to adopt it.” 

Good Technology’s data sharing capability is now a standard offering. Johnson said it is only supporting iPhone and Android devices. Because the lab could not previously provide e-mail access to iPhone and Android users, they were not receiving the same productivity benefits that BlackBerry owners enjoyed, he said.

Security remains one of the headaches with mobility. PNNL must provide secure access to the network while protecting the information on users’ mobile devices. Johnson noted that secure access was not a problem for laptops because of full-disk encryption, and BlackBerrys have built-in security. But security considerations become more problematic when programmable consumer devices, such as iPhones and Andriod smart phones and iPads, become available. “One of the big challenges that we had was to look for ways to secure these mobile devices,” he said.

Device flexibility is also an important tool for attracting and keeping talent. “It’s hard to tell Ph.Ds that you can only use a Windows box,” Johnson said. "If you want to hire a Nobel laureate or a top-notch scientist into a laboratory, you need to be flexible to provide the kind of environment that they want to work in.” 

In addition to attracting staff members, Johnson said, there is a growing generational difference because younger staff members are “used to things other than enterprise-ready environments.” Based on the computing needs of those two groups, the laboratory sought a new way to secure mobile devices that could meet regulatory requirements and protect information that the lab managed for its customers and partners.

“We need to have device flexibility, both to address the experienced, well-founded scientist who has their favorite way of computing, as well as being able to accommodate and attract the next generation of scientists who have grown up with a different style of computing than the [baby] boomers have,” he said.

One of the primary problems for wireless security is data encryption. Johnson said the laboratory’s BlackBerrys are encrypted and centrally managed. Handheld devices can also be remotely controlled or erased in the event of loss or theft.

“Those are the kinds of things that you would expect to be built into an enterprise-type device,” he said. “That kind of functionality is not built into consumer devices like iPhones and Android phones. What Good provided was the ability to create a sandbox on those devices wherein resides the corporate information.” That information is protected, which allows the laboratory to enforce encryption and password policies.

Johnson said the laboratory also liked Good’s software data erasure options. If the lab conducts a data erasure on a device, only corporate data, not personal information, is destroyed. “When it’s a personally owned device that we pay a stipend on, when we force an erasure, we only erase our data, not their data,” he said. He said that is a nice feature that’s different from security options offered on BlackBerrys.

The laboratory manages smart phones through a stipend program. Researchers own their iPhone or Android devices and receive a stipend from the laboratory for the business use of the devices. For example, the stipend could cover part of a voice plan and most of a data plan. PNNL also provides its researchers with a copy of the Good software that allows them to remotely access e-mail messages.

Johnson said the laboratory took this approach to avoid issues with personal use of government equipment. He said that in the past, scientists were prohibited from making personal calls on phones for business use only except during emergencies, which forced many staff members to carry two phones. That dual-use issue prompted the laboratory to launch its stipend plan, which eliminated the need to worry about employees using the phones for personal calls, Johnson said.

For users, the experience with Good Technology’s secure service is not that different from what people would encounter if they used BlackBerrys, Johnson said. Under the stipend plan, the overall number of people using mobile devices has increased.

The laboratory plans to support more devices. Next up: the iPad, which the lab supports only for access to a Web portal. Web access allows staff to access PNNL’s data and a subset of the lab's applications from a business center, hotel room or anywhere else their devices, such as iPads, have Internet access. As Good software becomes available for the iPad, he said, the laboratory will move to provide a push capability for e-mail and calendar functions to those devices.

The portal uses two-factor authentication for access to e-mail and time cards without caching the data on users’ personal devices. That capability also prevents any device security issues from affecting the security of the internal network, he said. “Currently, that’s the only way we’re supporting access to the laboratory from the iPad,” he said.

Going Paperless

Productivity software can also greatly enhance an organization’s efficiency. The Department of Social Services in Cumberland County, N.C., is using an information sharing and document management tool to reduce the processing time in its Food and Nutrition Services division. The fifth largest county in the state, Cumberland County is a mix of urban and rural communities. It is home to Fort Bragg and has a diverse community with a transient population because of the military, said Shirley Harris, assistant business director of business operations at the Department of Social Services.

Cumberland County’s Food and Nutrition Services division serves more than 27,000 families that meet federal and state guidelines for food and nutritional assistance. Based on numbers from the 2009 census, Cumberland County’s population is about 315,000, and 16.4 percent of the population falls below the poverty level and is eligible to receive food and nutrition aid, Harris said.

The Department of Social Services provides a range of services such as food and nutrition, medical assistance, protective services for adults and children, employment assistance, and child care. The department has a staff of about 650 people.

Harris said the growing demand for services inspired the move toward automation. As the economy fluctuated, especially during the recent severe downturn, the number of people needing assistance dramatically increased. Harris said that from 2007 to September 2010, households that require food stamps increased by 10,618 families. “We could not continue to absorb that amount of customers without automating our system,” she said.

The increased demand coincided with budget restrictions. Harris said the county could not afford to develop an in-house system or purchase an outside product. After extensive research, the county selected Tyler Technologies to help develop and integrate a new system to support the department’s staff. A technological solution was important because the Department of Social Services could not increase its staff or add space to manage all the paper generated by new customers.

Harris said the county chose Tyler's system because it combined an imaging and case management system. She said the county sought an application that could manage all its programs and services. The department also was willing to gradually grow into the new system in phases, initially installing it in September 2007 for the Food and Nutrition Assistance program. 

Before switching to the automated system, the county had an entirely paper-based process. The initial setup for moving to Tyler's system involved scanning and imaging existing case files, Harris said. By December 2007, all of the Food and Nutrition staff case workers were on the system. While setting up the system, she said the department focused on training and helping the staff adjust to working in a paperless, automated office.

The system was an immediate success, dramatically reducing the department’s paper storage needs. Harris said the organization hasn't had to buy any new file cabinets in three years. With the average cost of a file cabinet at about $200, she said, the money saved on cabinets equals a case worker’s salary and benefits. “We saved over $57,000 in three years on just not having to purchase file cabinets.”

The system has increased efficiency by cutting the time needed for caseworkers to review a household’s eligibility for services, from about an hour to 20 minutes or less. Harris said the system saves and updates changes to existing files, which eliminates the need for an employee to manually fill out forms with personal information each time someone came in for a review. Now employees can electronically capture and store data in the network and share it among different sections. The Food and Nutrition Services division's 78 staff members, consisting of caseworkers and their supervisors, manage about 27,000 cases. “The system, for us, has been a life saver,” she said.

The Tyler system allowed the county to integrate the case management system into its Department of Social Services. Harris said that although the department is part of the county government, it worked independently with Tyler to develop the case management system for the Food and Nutrition Services program.

The system allows all Department of Social Services employees to connect and share data. The system contains user permissions that allow some departments to share data but not view information from some other departments. For example, Food and Nutrition Services staff members can't see information from the Protective Services division.

In addition, the system helped the department do more with its existing staff members. Harris said that without the system, the department would have needed about 20 more people to meet the demand. Because of the poor economy, the Food and Nutrition Services caseload has increased 19 percent in 2010. “It’s a difficult time for everyone, but we’ve been able to manage,” she said.

The Food and Nutrition Services division has hired 12 employees to meet the increased demand. However, Harris said existing staff members also shifted their job descriptions, with employees who previously made copies or handled paper files transitioning to intake operators who capture general customer information when people apply for services. That initial data collection speeds the entire process when caseworkers interview applicants for eligibility, she said.

Meanwhile, the Department of Social Services is upgrading the system. Harris said it will soon add a Medicaid program that now consists of nearly 46,000 households. The system will cut the initial application process from two hours to an hour or less. Harris said the department is also considering moving financial records and personnel files onto the system. The department is responsible for archiving those files for a set amount of time.

In the next few years, Harris said she hopes to get the protective services aspect of the system, which involve more human interaction and decision-making by social workers, online. The Department of Social Services plans to develop tools that would help social workers manage the paper process of their jobs, such as dictation and tracking children. The new capabilities would help social workers electronically capture and maintain their work while they are in the field.

Reader Comments

Mon, Nov 15, 2010 Jeffrey A Williams

The only problem i see with this is how does or does GOOD TEchnology protect against bad Android Apps? See for instance:http://news.cnet.com/8301-1009_3-20022545-83.html?tag=nl.e757

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