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Executive Editor

Air Force streamlines electronic paperwork

Jan 13, 20034 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsProgramming Languages

Air Force spends $6.7 million to overhaul its obsolete electronic forms system

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Electronic forms aren’t the most exciting technology inside the U.S. Air Force, especially with F-22 Raptor fighter jets and B-2 Spirit bombers to consider. But when 18,000 different forms and 700,000 end users are involved, e-forms become a real priority – so much so that the Air Force is spending $6.7 million to overhaul its obsolete forms system.

Converting existing static forms – which include everything from personnel and travel requests to logistics and financial transactions – to smarter, Web-based versions will make the process of accessing, filling out and sending forms much easier for Air Force personnel worldwide, says Carolyn Watkins-Taylor, director of the Air Force’s departmental publishing office.

In addition to streamlined forms creation, the Air Force gains better management capabilities and increased employee productivity. The publishing office hasn’t conducted a formal cost-savings analysis, but if the new system saves every person in the Air Force community just 30 minutes per year of time-consuming data entry, that’s a $9 million savings annually, Watkins-Taylor says.

“And we think we can do even better than that,” she says. “We’re looking at it conservatively.”

The electronic forms overhaul is part of a broader content management effort to modernize Air Force publishing that includes Web-enabling technical manuals and deploying XML databases. For the $6.7 million forms component, the Air Force is using XML-based information management software from PureEdge Solutions.

PureEdge’s Internet Commerce System (ICS) lets users create, capture, process and archive secure XML e-forms using the Internet. A simple but crucial feature of PureEdge ICS is that it bundles all elements of a transaction in one file and stores it in one database – the form template and the underlying data stay together in a nonproprietary XML format.

With the old JetForm FormFlow system that the Air Force used, the form and the data were separate elements, and users had to save multiple files to archive just one electronic form. People kept losing their data, Watkins-Taylor says. To get around difficult archiving processes, people would often print out completed forms and later redo them rather than try to find a saved version, she says.

As a result, users were frustrated. “It was very hard to walk through the Pentagon and tell people that I was responsible for the electronic forms they were using,” Watkins-Taylor says.

The new system is more user-friendly, she says. “People don’t have to pull up a form template and then look for the data to populate it,” Watkins-Taylor says. “A template appears on the screen, they fill it out, and they save it just like a Word document.”

With ad hoc routing features, the PureEdge system automatically will forward a form to other users for their review and digital approval. Support for encrypted digital signatures eventually will be implemented to let users approve and exchange documents over the Internet without having to download, print and sign each form by hand.

“The customer base is really pushing hard to get it as soon as possible,” Watkins-Taylor says of the digital signature features.

The digital signature technology is in place, but the publishing office is waiting for the Air Force to settle on a digital signature standard and approve its implementation, she says. That should happen by spring.

The Air Force also is working to more tightly integrate the PureEdge software with its existing back-end systems.

As integration is made tighter, a user will be able to select forms with prefilled data from specific Air Force databases rather than repeatedly fill in common information. For example, the system might prepopulate certain fields with data from personnel, medical or financial systems. For this to work, IBM Content Manager acts as middleware between the PureEdge software – which resides on servers in an Oklahoma City data center – and different legacy systems, swapping and synchronizing data between the different sources, Watkins-Taylor says.

The publishing office settled on PureEdge after conducting a series of pilot tests at 12 Air Force bases last spring and has started converting its existing forms to the new system. The team put the first PureEdge forms online in September, and by March up to 3,000 forms will be available online, Watkins-Taylor says.

Rather than simply converting all the forms it currently supports – 18,000 today, down from 20,000 not long ago – the publishing office is working with individual Air Force departments to re-engineer their data-collection processes and reduce the total number of forms required.

“I could see a reduction of another 25% or 30%” of total supported forms, Watkins-Taylor says.