A lot of paper has been saved since the United Nations Office at Vienna (UNOV) introduced its electronic workflow system. The switchover has also saved staff from a seemingly ever growing burden of paperwork.
Until 2001 all administrative procedures at the Vienna International Centre (VIC) were fully paper-based. Recruitment, leave, travel requests, refunds, grants applications and so on all required multiple signatures, all done by hand, and their lengthy circuits round the office were inefficient and extremely hard to track. The workload placed on support staff with the arrival of every new colleague was becoming unbearable and terribly inefficient. Now, by contrast, the paper chase is history, electronic signatures are fully implemented, and Phillip Kruss, chief of UNOV's Information Technology Service, can happily report: “Thanks to this system, I haven't printed and/or signed any administrative document for several years. ”
The system is designed so that the originator of a request can set it up to trigger the various necessary procedures simultaneously, and move it automatically from person to person along the chain of decision-making and approval. They, and any other relevant people, are kept informed automatically of its progress. Anyone who needs to action it is advised by an email (with a link to the relevant document), and gets further email prompts if they haven't yet done what's needed. Furthermore, to ensure security and accountability, the system automatically records and stores all the documents involved, all stages of the process and the record of who did what and when.
The project was organized using a small team within the IT unit. The viability of their approach was demonstrated by the development of the first applications, on target. Once these had been rolled out, and won general acceptance, everything went ahead with strong support from staff and management. The developers worked in close co-operation with key users, rolling out each module very quickly (with target times of 20 person days) to confirm its basic functionality, and adding enhancements as user skills and requirements grew. Thus the hardware, infrastructure, applications and basic user skills all moved forward in parallel. The computerised process is very user friendly, once someone has been trained in how to use the system, and a big factor in the success of the project has been the way it has moved the entire user community up one level in terms of IT skills.
The project was implemented entirely in-house by UN staff, using no external contractors or commercial firms. The people hired specifically for this task were dedicated full time to it. The development and implementation of the system required the focused effort of three internal developers plus management.
The purchase of hardware, licenses and other computer essentials (email, chat and so on) was automatically integrated within the organization's already sophisticated information and communication technology (ICT) programme. Most of the Lotus Notes workflow applications, and the modules to convert all procedures to online systems, were developed in-house.
This project has been a showcase for what a UN organization can achieve, and its benefits continue to be felt. Staff are less burdened by administrative tasks, and have more time available for other things. Administrative processes are more transparent and accountable, and a great deal faster. For example, the new automated checkout system reduced the clearance time for staff leaving UNOV from 3 weeks to 3 days. The reduction in paper consumption is significant too, as a study currently under way will confirm.