Nelson City tackles information 'labyrinth'

Document management not only supports regulatory compliance, but enables customer service restructuring

Nelson City Council is reaping the rewards of an investment in document management technology, finding the software helps it comply with regulation such as the Public Records Act and boosts customer service as well.

Data management coordinator Martin Erasmuson says regulatory compliance was one of the drivers behind the investment, but not the only one.

He says the council was struggling to deal with unstructured data. This included files in the Word format, emails and Excel spreadsheets, which were often duplicated as email attachments and in a “labyrinth” of servers and network folders that made information inaccessible to most of the organisation.

Document and records management was a key plank in fixing that issue, Erasmuson says, alongside its knowledge-base intranet.

“They are part of the key knowledge infrastructure, so people have the information they need at their fingertips and wherever they happen to be,” he says.

The implementation of the council’s Open Text document management system has also supported valuable structural changes within the organisation. A new customer services centre consolidates five centres spread over three floors, integrating all requests for council services into one place.

In the past, people with more than one piece of business to transact with the council were transferred from one service desk to another.

The project began in 2004. The council had previously maintained a hard-copy filing system spanning technical plans, correspondence, forms, approvals and so on. But it had been some time since there had been a typing pool responsible for issuing, centrally filing and managing documents and records.

With PCs on every desktop, most staff created their own documents and reports. The amount and complexity of correspondence coming in and going out of the council had increased noticeably. Hard copy files represented only around one-fifth of the total documentation that needed to be managed, while the remaining electronic documents were subject to a variety of filing conventions that differed from department to department, and person to person.

Data was plentiful, but it was too widely dispersed and information was becoming harder to locate and when recovered was also inconsistent and incomplete.

In 2005 and 2006 the council reviewed its document management practices.

“Our hard copy system was really well managed with disposal schedules that were adhered to. But when it came to electronic files, it was like entering a parallel universe. People would set up their own folder structures, but then they might leave or move on to another department,” Erasmuson says.

“There were no disposal policies, nor was there any metadata around the documents to help others searching for information. What electronic information you might locate could not be relied upon as complete, consistent or up-to-date. It was a big black hole.”

Talking to other councils, Erasmuson found a wide variety of approaches. Alarmingly, everyone spoken to said: “Don’t do it the way we did it.”

Erasmuson then defined Nelson City Council’s requirements and software evaluations followed.

“Many organisations are more interested in document management, but we also wanted to be able to do records management such as creating records, creating disposal schedules and so on. This combination of functionalities was the key thing that led us to select Open Text Document Management,” he says.

Not all staff immediately warmed to the idea of the new filing and metadata conventions.

Now, however, the implementation has integrated Open Text across the council’s Geographical Information Systems, service request system and main administration systems including regulatory systems. It includes tight integration with the email system, thus enabling staff to file, access and manage the myriad of emails they create and respond to every day.

The system is available with both a thick client installation and through a web browser, and is integrated with Microsoft Office. When a user hits the save button a screen appears to prompt the filing and tagging of the document and classification for the correct disposal schedule to be applied. The thick client is good for integration with other systems such as GIS and the service request system through application programming interfaces, Erasmuson says.

At implementation it was possible to crawl the network, identify and import the active and important file and to then leave the rest on the network. Then, when someone opened and used one of the files that had been left behind, these too would be imported into the system.

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