Each winter, thousands of residents in Minnesota’s Ramsey and Washington Counties struggle to pay for basic heating and utilities. When a household finds itself in need, it turns to Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties, a state agency that runs the largest low income home energy assistance program in Minnesota.
“In 2009, we had more than 25,000 active applications stored in 30 extra-deep, four-drawer filing cabinets,” explains Catherine Fair, Director of Energy Assistance Programs at Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties. “Due to state regulations, we need to keep past applications on file for three years, so we had even more paper stuffed into two onsite storage rooms and an offsite storage garage.”
Paper files slowed staff down, but they also complicated the energy assistance program’s twice-yearly audits. Fair explains, “As a state agency, we’re regularly audited to ensure that applications are accurately processed. Files are randomly selected by the auditors, and it was a daunting task to find the ones they requested among 25,000 others!”
She explains that, as she was researching content management solutions, Laserfiche’s name kept cropping up. “The tech sites I visited all mentioned Laserfiche as the industry standard for government organizations.”
Fair notes that Laserfiche Workflow, a business process management tool that enables organizations to automate manual processes, was a major factor in the agency’s decision to purchase Laserfiche. “We knew that automating our application approval process would make us more efficient and accelerate our ability to help households in need,” she says.
Benefits of the TIFF File Format
Laserfiche’s use of the TIFF file format was another big point in its favor. “Laserfiche stores files in the TIFF file format, which all computers can read,” says Fair.
The TIFF file format is the preferred digital archival format for many organizations because it is an open standard. There are a variety of freely available TIFF viewers available and every computer can natively view TIFF files. Scanning documents as TIFF images and extracting their contents as ASCII text is the only way to maintain “eye readability” in a digital format.
Further, choosing an ECM solution that uses an open file format ensures that system performance is continuously enhanced by advances in hardware, software and communication technologies. Selecting a closed format hampers the ability to migrate data from one ECM system to another.
Fair notes that the IT department for Community Action of Ramsey and Washington Counties did not want to implement ECM software that uses closed file formats because there is no guarantee that such formats will be supported in 25, 50 or even 100 years. “Vendor lock-in is a big concern for the IT department. If you choose a file format that’s controlled by a single vendor, you invite a lot of unnecessary risk from both an IT and an information governance perspective.”
Managing Change with Fish-themed Fun
After researching its options, the agency chose to purchase Laserfiche Avante, an ECM solution for organizations with fewer than 100 users, from Solbrekk, a Laserfiche reseller based in Minneapolis. Laserfiche Avante’s named-user model works well for Community Action of Ramsey and Washington Counties, since multiple staff members frequently need to access the system at the same time.
“We created and screened a home movie illustrating the way things were before Laserfiche. Then we showed how easy paperless application processing would be thanks to Laserfiche Workflow.”
Another important feature, says Fair, is that the functionality and appearance of the Laserfiche user interface is similar to Windows. “The familiarity is comforting for our less confident computer users.”
Fair notes that, once Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties selected Laserfiche, ensuring a smooth transition from paper-based to paperless processes was essential. She explains, “We have staff with varied computer competency, so a positive attitude to the new system was critical to the success of the project.”
For two years, energy assistance program staff used Laserfiche primarily for records management, scanning paper files into the system once the data entry and eligibility determination processes were complete. To mark the beginning of a new era—the era of workflow automation—the department held a fish-themed kickoff party that boasted fish balloons, goldfish crackers, glow sticks and a fish mascot to get everyone excited about expanding their use of Laserfiche.
According to Fair, “We created and screened a home movie illustrating the way things were before Laserfiche, with endless searches for files, frustrated staff and clients and so on. Then we showed how easy paperless application processing would be thanks to Laserfiche Workflow.”
Training on how to use Laserfiche Workflow, a business process management tool, to manage applications followed the movie screening.
Automated Application Processing
In August 2011, the energy assistance program began scanning applications and documentation such as paycheck stubs into Laserfiche prior to determining income eligibility or entering the demographic information into a statewide Web-based client database.
“Many of our clients are very low income and have been disconnected from their utilities. We receive thousands of calls from clients anxious to know if we can help them,” says Fair. “Before Laserfiche, these kinds of calls were hard to field, since staff didn’t have the relevant information in front of them. Today, the calls are much more productive. We can find a client’s application immediately by looking in Laserfiche and can then let the client know exactly what he needs to do to complete his application.”
After applications are scanned into the system using Laserfiche Quick Fields, a high-volume capture and processing tool, staff members process applications for assistance by:
- Opening the Application Status folder, which contains subfolders including Approved, Certify, Complete, Denied, Incomplete, Logged, Match Follow-Up, Transfer Out/Closed and Vacant Clients.
- Opening the Logged folder, which contains two subfolders:
- Red Orange Yellow, which is for all crisis files that need to be processed within a timeline.
- Green, which means that there is no immediate crisis or threat of disconnection.
- Opening the Red Orange Yellow folder, where they see application priority status and creation date/time. Fair explains, “We used the colors that staff had associated with crisis priorities when we were processing paper files to ensure the workflow was intuitive and easy for staff to understand.”
- To sign out files for processing, case workers sort by application date and crisis priority. They select the first ten applications, right-click on them to open the application template, click on the Processor ID drop-down box, select their name and hit enter.
- Workflow automatically moves the selected files into the staff member’s subfolder within the Processing Group folder.
- Laserfiche Workflow automatically creates folders for each case, including the application, an eligibility worksheet and a case note log.
- Many template fields in the application are prepopulated with data from the Quick Fields session, but upon reviewing the application, staff members manually input additional information such as the amount of assistance to be provided.
- The eligibility worksheet (an Excel file) included in the case folder allows staff members to easily calculate the amount of assistance each applicant is eligible for.
- In the case notes log (a Word document) staff members record details of conversations with applicants.
- The template has drop-down menus that allow the staff member to direct the file to other groups for follow up. For example, if a case worker chooses “yes” under Furnace Problem, Workflow will automatically move the file to the furnace repair group for attention.
“By digitizing applications and automating the approval process, we have significantly improved crisis response time,” says Fair. “When an application shows a disconnection in progress, we route the file to an expedited queue simply by changing a template field. We can also sort through income documents much faster to determine grant amounts as soon as possible.”
Fair notes that Laserfiche, thanks to security features such as Windows authentication and named-user access, protects client information such as social security numbers. “The agency would face hefty fines if we had a breach of data security. With more than 100,000 files in four locations, we were taking a big risk. Laserfiche protects sensitive information while making our business processes more efficient. It has helped us tremendously and we hope that other non-profit agencies that deliver federal programs can learn from our success!”