Tompkins County Crumples the Paper Jam

By Samuel Greengard

The transition from paper to pixels has presented enormous challenges for many organizations. However, for government entities that are mired in paper—and with documents that date back decades or centuries—the migration to a digital business environment is an often daunting task.

Tompkins County in New York, which encompasses 476 square miles and has a population of just above 100,000, is a leader in migrating from paper to pixels. “In the past, we had mountains of paper and we had a building that was starting to fall down and leak. We recognized that we had to move to a more sophisticated electronic document management system,” says deputy IT director Loren Cottrell.

The transition was a difficult ordeal. Among other things, Tompkins County had 200 years of criminal and court records tucked away in file cabinets and storage boxes. Overall, it had more than 9,000 boxes from 29 departments dating back to 1817. “We had every record conceivable with every county department,” Cottrell notes.

Although the county had embarked on a document imaging initiative in 2000—it included land and civil records—it wasn’t until it began receiving state grants totaling nearly $600,000 in 2011 that it had the resources to go entirely digital (the project actually commenced in 2010). “Although we outsource the scanning, the existing imaging system couldn’t handle all the documents we needed for the new project,” he explains.

The county adopted an electronic content management (ECM) system from Laserfiche. By converting the paper records to digital content, the county has streamlined internal workflows, trimmed costs and built a more efficient environment. For example, judges now use iPads to access court documents from the bench. Employees can view pertinent records without having to leave their desk. In the past, fetching a record could take anywhere from minutes to hours.

An added benefit is that the records are more securely managed and Tompkins County can conduct audits more effectively. “We have a far more sophisticated indexing and retrieval system in place,” Cottrell points out. What’s more, the records are integrated with applications the employees use, and all the records are available through a web browser, either on the desktop or via a mobile device. The mobile feature makes key documents and records available to engineers, inspectors and others in the field.

Tompkins County is already making its records available to other government agencies—including local towns and villages—using a shared services approach. Moreover, it plans to expand access to the public in the coming months via a portal, notes Maureen Reynolds, deputy county clerk at Tompkins County. An ancillary benefit of the system, she adds, is more robust disaster recovery. The county has redundant data centers with NetApp SANs, both of which are equipped with VPNs and firewalls. “We no longer have to worry about lost or damaged records—and expensive bills related to restoring records,” Reynolds explains.

In the end, the digital initiative has transformed the way Tompkins County handles information. In fact, Cottrell estimates it has so far saved the county as much as $5.5 million and helped eliminate a records building. “We are moving to a more sophisticated business model and far more efficient workflows,” he says. “The system is taking us into the digital age.”

About the Author

Samuel Greengard is a contributing writer for CIO Insight. To read his previous CIO Insight article, “Developing a Mobile App Strategy,” click here 

Samuel Greengard
Samuel Greengard
Samuel Greengard writes about business, technology and other topics. His book, The Internet of Things (MIT Press) was released in the spring of 2015.

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