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How Dedham, MA Made Sewer Billing Beautiful

Andrea Terkelsen, CFO and CIO for Dedham, explains how one form has lead to numerous improvements to her town's online government services.

The following is an excerpt from the SeamlessDocs Q&A webinar with Andrea Terkelsen. You can listen to the full conversation by visiting our SeamlessDocs on-demand webinar page for Dedham, MA. As she explains, "I’ve worked exclusively in local government for the last 15 years. I've been in Dedham now for about the last four and a half years. In my role here, I'm the Chief Financial Officer, but I also have the dual pleasure of being really the Chief Information Officer for the town. Currently I'm specializing recently in developing and deploying all of our information systems throughout the town."

How did the conversation of digitizing forms start?

Here in the town of Dedham, like a lot of local government organizations of our size, we've managed to get by over many years using really a mish-mosh of forms created mostly in Microsoft Office applications and Adobe Acrobat. Anybody that's used these two platforms to create fill-in forms knows they are time consuming and hard to use.

Last March I had just finished the final touches on the sewer utility billing in our new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, Tyler Munis. We're a very small shop here in terms of our information systems/technology, and while we rely on some of these larger enterprise systems for certain process, we were also looking for some quick and easy wins to get us started and get our internal confidence level up. 

After chatting with the SeamlessDocs team at that time, they showed me how we could quickly get a new digital form up and running for our utility billing system, so I decided to give them a go.

Which government form did you convert first?

Rather than take on too much, I decided to focus on just one form. Since I had just spent all this time rebuilding our sewer billing system, I of course looked at forms in that system. As I was looking at the different sewer forms, the irrigation meter reading form really, to me, stood to benefit the most from being a web form. It's a pretty basic form that gets a lot of submissions, and kicks off a manual-intensive workflow for approvals. 

To give some context, for our sewer utility billing we have 8,000 accounts that we bill quarterly. As part of that function, we provide usage credits for over 600 accounts in Dedham. We have irrigation meters and we have to process that information in order to give people credits. 

I was almost mortified to see that we were processing the forms submissions literally by hand. I asked, “What could I do to make our sewer utility billing function completely paperless? What could we do to make this process easier for everybody?”

Converting this form to a SeamlessDocs first and foremost makes it easier for citizens to submit online. The form renders nicely on a smartphone or a small tablet, and we added the functionality to attach an image with the form submission. 

Now someone can open that form on their smartphone wherever their irrigation meter is located, complete the form fields on the spot, snap that picture with that phone, and send that document right to us. This cuts down on the mistakes our constituents make in their submissions, and the attached image makes it easier for our staff to process the submission. 

How did you use SeamlessDocs?

I was able to take a PDF we had created initially in Microsoft Word and bring it right into SeamlessDocs to convert it to an online form. The system has a great recognition functionality to it, much better than anything I've used, including Adobe Acrobat. Right off the bat, the system helped us identity key fields and tweak those to indicate what information we need.

This is an example of a sewer adjustment or sewer abatement form:

An example of an online government form created using SeamlessDocs.

The workflow starts with a sewer customer completing this form, and then having it go to a sewer billing specialist in town. Once he or she does reviews this application, we're able to send it via the email link to our sewer commissioner, who happens to be our town manager here in Dedham, and he's able to either accept or deny based on the information we've provided. After that, the process is complete. 

The form contains all the fields we need, like date and signature, and all of this information—with just an email—can go through the approval signature processes that we need and then into our SeamlessDocs database where we can store and access it securely. On top of that, we can conveniently recall that data later on when we need it instead of us having to shuffle paper or search emails. I don't know about everybody else, but we're just so inundated with emails these days that it makes it difficult to find anything as important as a sewer abatement when you really need it. So this process is a huge improvement. 

This is a reserve fund transfer request form with our finance committee:

An image of a reserve fund transfer request form used by the township of Dedham government.

Again, we took a form that we had initially. I think this one might've even started in Excel and if you’ve ever had to make forms in Excel, you know how difficult it can be to get the tabs and everything squared away. We also brought this into SeamlessDocs. In this type of format, we can even do some calculations and some checks & balances to make sure that people have populated information the way we need it.

One of the things I did on this form is made sure that I could put in some hints, if you will, on these key fields that someone's going to be filling in just to give them an idea visually of what they can be expected to put in there. SeamlessDocs has some other features where you can scroll over and look at getting additional information or help, but I found that putting in some explanation as a start has proved very helpful. You can see you can have expanded fields for putting in all sorts of text which certainly someone can type-write in there very easily, or if you're working with email or other documents, you can certainly cut-and-paste very easily into these bigger fields. 

In this case, we'll be completing this information and once the finance committee meeting happens, we can actually send this via email to the finance chair to sign the document and essentially affirm what's been approved in the meeting. We no longer have to wait at the end of the meeting trying to find the paperwork and making sure the signed documents get back to the finance department. This is another quick form that I think is going to be very popular throughout the organization. It really was very, very easy to pull together.

What have you seen in the way of time savings?

We had 600 irrigation meter accounts that we needed to track, and processing submissions from those account was all done manually. We would send out a little postcard once a year to the sewer account users and they were expected to fill that out, send it back to us, and depending on who had time, someone on our team had to literally hand-key all of that data.

Since we’ve switched to an online form, I estimate that we saved probably 30 man hours in the submission cycle we just completed. That’s a huge savings for us in terms of employee time, which ultimately saves us money and gives us the opportunity to work on other tasks. It’s the difference between us spending time bringing in more revenue or processing critical backlogs and fixing mistakes.

Having streamlined this entire process, we're now looking to be able run this irrigation process more than once a year and possibly even have that set up so that when people need to do a final sewer bill. That way, if someone is selling their property, we’ll have a way of providing that seller their potentially big user irrigation credit before they leave and prevent unintentionally giving that to the new person. 

Permissioning with SeamlessDocs

Not everyone in the organization is going to need access to the end data coming from the irrigation meter form. Having all this information come into the SeamlessDocs database makes it much easier to share data  between departments. For example, something as simple as taking a document from the finance department where I'm at and getting that to the HR department or the engineering department—we don't all have the same access to our network footprint. With SeamlessDocs, we can not only assign access rights form by form, but we can start to organize and give people access to what they need.

SeamlessDocs Integration with Sharepoint

All of this form data can be exported to Excel with the click of a button. We're a Microsoft office shop here, so to have that exporting into Excel is fantastic. With the click of a button, we got the data that we needed for that irrigation meter reading list and we were able to quickly put that in a format into a text file that we were able to import into our ERP system. 

Again, having to hand-key just the readings for 600 accounts would be very, very time-consuming, and chances are we're going to make a lot of mistakes anyways. Being able to take that and actually import it very easily into our utility billing system was just tremendous.

We’re looking forward to integrating SeamlessDocs with Sharepoint. A big initiative within the next year is for us to really develop an intranet for the town of Dedham. It seems like it would be an easy thing, but it's really not. There's a lot of pieces involved in how we're going to be collaborating and sharing information in the future. Having our first part of that, taking information, putting it into Sharepoint, is going to help us now deliver those documents, deliver the data from those documents to key people not only in our organization but those that we're collaborating with outside for perhaps different committees and boards.

Instead of us then requiring people to log into our SeamlessDocs database, we're going to be able to push out content for them in a secure, easy fashion to where they're comfortable working and collaborating rather than making them jump through a lot of hoops to get that. That's going to be a huge thing. We'll be taking SeamlessDocs “internal”, if you will, and really taking a hold of all of the internal documents we have. It's great for us to be sharing things and working with the public, but my big initiative for the next year is to take this technology and really bridge the gaps between all of the critical internal things that we do between not only the departments and the organization but between the different systems that we have. 

We do have a lot of things going on. We've been implementing our large ERP system and some other large business applications over the last number of years. It's so nice to have something outside of those heavy-hitter systems that we can literally just form by form, department by department work with each other to develop those new ins and ease our way into communicating in this new digital era for us. 

SeamlessDocs scales with your needs

Truth be told, when we started we didn't have too many folks on board with the project, and we didn’t have the bandwidth to do something big. SeamlessDocs is a great scalable solution. 

If you need to, I would just suggest starting off small. It’s something you can even work on on your own. I've spent time looking at the little Seamless University snippets as I've been trying to do stuff, and it's helped me do a lot of the development myself.

Then, as you start to get some quick wins and gain more internal support, you can look at ways to mix in more forms. For example, converting our mileage reimbursements and other employee expense forms to SeamlessDocs will help with data entry and calculations, which will make everyone happy, especially our accounts payable team.

Advanced functionality

For you finance folks out there, there are some options to do some calculations on the SeamlessDocs form. I just started dabbling with them myself. It's nice to not only be able to set the formats and try to help people with what they need to fill in there, there's some great calculation options. It's not a matter of just having a static form. There's calculations and some other features on there that really have helped us out in terms of putting some of these things in production. 

Accessibility

I haven't come across any issues in terms of accessibility with this locally as people are pulling things down through the internet and working with all the browsers that people are comfortable with. It seems to be something that people are really gravitating toward. It's scalable within and viewable easily within the different web platforms out there.

We do have to have a lot of different options for people. We're still local government. We still rely quite a bit on folks coming into the office. With all this digital technology, we make sure that we have people call them kiosks or terminals set up throughout not only town hall but the different departments and things like that. We're working toward doing all that we can with the community through our website. Whether we're pushing out content through Facebook, social media, and things like that, we're looking to expand our website to being the key focal point for us and the community. 

I think having a platform, a content management system that is a leader in accessibility and all of that and also have that working nicely with a company like SeamlessDocs, which covers all the accessibility issues that we might be dealing with as well as the security aspect of the system – I see this working very nicely for us within the next year or two as we really expand. 

Future Projects

The really big thing for me is taking SeamlessDocs and some of our other key platforms and developing a true intranet or internal web world, if you will, for us as an organization.

There's so much technology out there that we're trying to use, and something like this really helps connect the dots. I see just the redevelopment of how we maintain our data and particularly how we collaborate on things. It's going to be – make a world of difference and with something like a SeamlessDocs, being able to then potentially partner with a favorite payment provider in local government is going to just expand things even more. To be able to offer that as an additional convenience for our citizens out there I think is going to be another big win for us as well.

With SeamlessDocs, we're hoping to make all our sewer billing processes 100% paperless within the next 6 to 12 months. We’ve also added four additional forms in the sewer area to move us closer to that goal of going paperless. We've got several others just for that one function that are in pre-production. I hope to get those up and available on our website within the next couple weeks.

Beyond that, I estimate we have well over 200 forms that potentially could be developed through the SeamlessDocs. It’s easy and inexpensive way to deploy more forms and we can benefit greatly now without having to worry about investing too much time, money, or effort. It's scalable and as I mentioned, it’s been a quick, tremendous return on our investment.

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