BPM helps the City of Norfolk help themselves

Norfolk, Virginia is a leading public sector user of Business Process Management and the city’s IT department has worked for nearly the last decade to develop a strategy for better process automation.

City budgets are severely strained due to economic conditions pervasive in the news for the past year, and at least for the next few quarters this outlook is not likely to change. But Norfolk, Virginia’s leader in Business Process Automation, Mary White, says this is a perfect time to improve government services and efficiency by leveraging business process management (BPM) tools.

“We have thousands of paper forms and every one is a potential process to automate,” Ms. White said in an interview following her presentation at the Metastorm Global User Conference last week. Spreading this viewpoint to the city’s 4,900 other employees, however, has been a major task for Ms. White and her team since launching into BPM in 2002 – one she feels they are winning.

“BPM is considered by many to be an invasive technology, which creates difficulties for technical support staff” White said. But the hope is that process automation will become an end user product, similar to how employees across all departments create and share Excel spreadsheets. “The hardest thing is changing the perception that IT owns BPM …it’s a paradigm shift.”

One of early accomplishments of the Metastorm BPM® software was automating building permits. Before implementing the technology, Norfolk took nineteen days to approve permits. After implementing the BPM solution service delivery dropped to three days. This process was so successful, that it was sought after and shared with other cities. Norfolk has now automated processes in departments as varied as finance, law enforcement and human resources. In addition, they have automated interfaces with systems such as Peoplesoft, AMS Advantage and Sungard HTE using Metastorm’s BPM software. Several projects are in the queue throughout the city’s operations, with an increasing number of processes being developed for customers outside the traditional oversight of IT.

When the budget cuts hit, however, Ms. White said the cliché of “doing more with less” became the only option. This was the intent of the permitting project. The year prior to automation, the city processed about 30,000 permits for housing and construction last year and that number was expected to go up to about 48,000 that same year. “When people asked, ‘Can I have this?’ that’s how I know we’ve grown to another level,” said Ms. White. “Yet to have this influx of interest at a time when budgets are strained, and every expense is under scrutiny, is unfortunate.” BPM is designed to be the solution for times like these.

To address this situation, the group of eAccess & Process Automation BPM team created a framework to guide other departments when developing their BPM strategies. Each project must have:

  • A Process Owner – similar to a project sponsor – who will manage process requirements and early deployments
  • A Technical Liaison who communicates with the Process Owner and serves as the main point of contact for end user questions
  • An IT Support person who is a process automation expert that also coordinates other technical services

This type of management structure partners IT with their customers to take responsibility for their own training, marketing, and documentation of their process automation. Therefore personnel cuts have been less damaging to the city’s BPM service delivery. Ms. White also said that BPM automation allows customers to improve protocols so that they don’t automate bad practices that impedes business. “They realize BPM is an enabling tool. We’re coaching them to design something more quality and accountability into their business flows.”

Moving forward, Ms. White says keeping pace with BPM upgrades, as well as supporting technologies like SQL Server, will remain a challenge in this economy. But a planned transition to virtualized servers this year will help free some test environments, allow the IT department to inherit third party upgrades, and hasten process automation.

Four or five years ago Metastorm BPM allowed the city to decrease the wait time for building permits by two weeks. Now, it is helping the city maintain high levels of service delivery in the face of budget cuts and layoffs.

“It’s part of ROI that you don’t measure in throughput time,” Ms. White said of the software. “You’re asking people to do five jobs at one time and Metastorm can make it possible for them to actually respond to more workload than they could before.”