Plays well with others: the integration imperative for government

During my government days, the most difficult decisions I had to make were which software packages to buy and which vendors to use. Why was this so difficult? We had so many pieces and parts already – at one point, I had six different databases covering my 50-person department. And each person had to learn how to use each of them. Needless to say, I was not interested in making their lives any harder by adding more technology to their plates.

But first, why are integrated government software solutions such a big deal in the first place? Let’s start by looking at the database problem.

Agencies have a very involved compliance environment. And the more local the government agency, the more challenges they face. Why? Because of how government money and duties flow.

Take, for example, state agencies. Their state, along with the federal government, imposes rules on the use of the funding that drives government programs. You can imagine then what it’s like for counties and cities – they have to follow federal, state, county AND oftentimes, city rules. Sometimes the rules are contradictory. But more often, they just add up to a big pile of tasks.

To help manage this complex regulatory situation, special databases are bought or created. And the more regulations they face, the more databases they have. But while more databases is a good thing in theory, it ends up hurting the efficiency of the agency.

Here’s why. Both data and documents are needed to accurately record and report on activities that use public funds, right? But, the databases are separated from the documents that support them. This means that recording and reporting are very manual tasks for staff. They have to stop what they’re doing, walk to file cabinets, and retrieve paper documents. If documents aren’t there – sent to archival storage or are just missing – ouch! That’s a huge loss of efficiency for an agency!

But there’s a catch: when it comes to government, integrating a database with document management is a tricky thing. If you hadn’t noticed, there’s a lot of turnover in government – one election could change your compliance tasks overnight. This means that your databases change and the custom programming you paid for is rendered obsolete, or isn’t even required anymore.

So if custom programming is out, what’s the answer? Flexibility. A document management solution must be able to respond to changing integration needs to be cost-effective. Given the budget issues that we face today, it’s unthinkable to select a document management option whose efficiencies were destroyed by out-year costs that exploit the volatile government agency environment.

In the end, it’s not enough to have document management – you have to integrate it with the data, and integration must be done the right way. What if the custom-programmed links break during a year when your budget has been cut? What’s the delay to getting the integration re-established? The cost of custom programming will outweigh the savings. Ease of integration should be a critical decision point in your document management software selection.

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