Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General
Government Agency Cuts Development Time by 75 Percent with xRM Platform
The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General needed to provide software solutions to support a variety of business needs, but development was time consuming and expensive. After experiencing success using Microsoft Dynamics® CRM to develop a mail-tracking application, the agency turned to the xRM platform, upon which Microsoft Dynamics CRM is built, to rapidly create relational line-of-business applications. By doing so, it reduced development timelines by approximately 75 percent. IT staff members can now respond to business needs far more quickly, developing a range of xRM-based solutions—from case-expense tracking to home-improvement contractor registration. The applications have been readily accepted by users because of their familiar interface and intuitive functionality. Most importantly, the agency now has the agility to better serve its users and its constituents. Situation
The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General is responsible for criminal law, civil law, and public protection for the state’s 12 million citizens. The agency handles everything from complaints about elder abuse to the investigation of organized crime.
Providing such disparate services requires a dedicated staff of more than 850 employees, as well as the technology to support them. However, the agency employs a limited number of application developers, which makes it difficult to create the custom solutions that business users require to effectively do their jobs and seamlessly interact with the public. “We had a fairly extensive ‘laundry list’ of requested software applications awaiting development,” says George White, Chief Information Officer for the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General. “With a limited number of developers on staff and a growing list of applications that needed to be built, we could only produce so many solutions in a given time using traditional development methods.”
||Government needs to be more innovative and aggressive in its approach. Microsoft [xRM] is the tool that we’re banking on to help us get there.
Chief Information Officer, Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General
The agency tried to respond to business needs by hiring contractors and outsourcing some of its development efforts, but that soon grew expensive. “Outside developers charge at least $75 per hour, and just one outsourced project could cost $100,000 or more,” says Tron Keefer, Business Integration Group Manager for the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General.
The agency also ran into issues after launching custom software solutions because it was so time consuming—and therefore costly—to amend them. “Users were afraid to ask for helpful changes because we’d typically have to say ‘No’ on the grounds that it just took too long to go back and rework the application,” says Keefer. “Many actually adjusted their business processes to fit the software application, rather than the other way around.”
The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General wanted to better serve its user community and, ultimately, its constituents. So it sought a platform on which to quickly and cost-effectively build solutions for areas as diverse as outreach, safety and security, disaster recovery, restitution, and consumer protection.
In March 2007, the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General undertook an initiative to replace a legacy application for tracking the paper mail that it receives. Of all the customer relationship management (CRM) products that it considered, it chose to build its application on the xRM platform, which underpins Microsoft Dynamics® CRM, because of the flexibility, comparative low cost, and integration with products that the agency already used, such as Microsoft® Office Professional 2007, Microsoft Office SharePoint® Server 2007, and Microsoft SQL Server® 2005 data management system. The agency soon expanded the solution to handle telephone, e-mail, and in-person interactions with the public. “We were not only able to replace functionality, but also to enhance the application’s capabilities so that we could better serve our constituent base,” says White.
Upon the success of the mail-tracking application, the agency realized that the xRM platform could be used for much more. “We saw that [it] had considerable potential for use as a rapid application development platform for all the ‘Constituent Relationship Management’ solutions we needed,” says Keefer.
||Despite the aggressive timeline, we were ready to go two weeks ahead of schedule. That would have been a whole lot harder to do, even with extra contract developer help, had we not implemented Microsoft.
Chief Information Officer, Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General
The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General sent two of its staff developers for in-depth technical training, and they returned with many innovative ideas. Recalls White, “We all sat down and determined that we could use xRM to complete our list of projects in a fraction of the time that it would take if we stuck with traditional development approaches.”
To confirm its confidence in the xRM platform as the means to resolve a myriad of issues, the agency attended an Architecture Design Session at the Microsoft Technology Center (MTC) in Reston, Virginia, in December 2007. The session lasted a day and a half, during which the group reviewed the agency’s list of potential projects and discussed business requirements, obstacles, and how to overcome them. “We came away from the MTC convinced that we could do what we wanted to with this tool—and we even had a road map to follow for tackling our list,” says Keefer. Developing Pilot Solutions
Following the MTC engagement, the agency decided to conduct a test of xRM rapid application development capabilities. Keefer assigned an intern—with no development experience—to recreate three Intelligence Audit applications. Agency auditors needed the applications to help manage field data regarding police-department tracking of convicted sex offenders, child abusers, and other crimes covered under Pennsylvania’s Criminal History Record Information Act.
Previously, the agency hired a senior-level contract developer, who took more than three months to write just one of the applications using traditional development methods. “In two weeks, our intern produced for free what a skilled developer needed three months and more than $50,000 to develop,” says Keefer. “Plus, the intern’s application had a better interface and more robust functionality than the original one. For instance, agency auditors can put the application on a portable computer for use in the field in disconnected mode, for added flexibility.”
Adds White, “Seeing how quickly and easily we could add complexities and functionality to our business applications made it pretty clear that this was a tool that really did work and fit our needs.”Creating Line-of-Business Applications
Based on that initial success, the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General embarked on a series of development projects, all based on the xRM platform. For each project, the agency’s IT staff used a “mind-map” approach to brainstorm, develop a solution strategy, and outline the potential application’s business requirements. Junior members of the development team then took the requirements and created the application’s look and feel, drop-down lists, fields, and other features. More-experienced developers only became involved to help develop workflow processes, business logic, integration with the agency’s other line-of-business applications, and any other more-complex tasks.
Continuing to Extend the xRM Platform
- Education and Outreach
One of the applications that the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General developed using the xRM platform is for its Education and Outreach Section, which manages outreach to schools, senior centers, and so on. That department receives numerous requests for agency speakers and participation in events, and staff needed a way to track those requests and ensure that the appropriate speaker, materials, and equipment arrived at each event. Previously, the department used Microsoft Office Word 2007 documents and Microsoft Office Excel® spreadsheets for tracking information, but staff encountered version-control issues, data inaccuracies, and other problems.
The agency decided to develop an application to give department staff the ability to log all pertinent information related to each education-outreach request, monitor that data, allocate speakers and material resources, and estimate attendee numbers and anticipated guests. “I assigned a developer who had experience with Cold Fusion but none with Microsoft technologies, and he completed the project in only two weeks,” says Keefer. The developer created an application that makes it possible to store and track a variety of related information in the same place and generate automated monthly reports. Notes White, “Because they weren’t overly technical, the end users in that department were fairly apprehensive—even reluctant—to try the new application. But they did and they love it.”
- Home-Improvement Contractor Registry
The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General got an unexpected opportunity to take further advantage of xRM in December 2008 when the state passed a law that requires all home-improvement contractors in the state to register with the agency before doing projects that cost more than U.S.$5,000. The agency would need to process the influx of contractor registrations, which contractors were required to submit no later than July 1, 2009. That meant that the IT staff needed to produce a solution by the end of March 2009 to accommodate contractors who wanted to register early.
The agency’s legislative affairs office asked IT to enable the agency to accept online as well as mailed registrations and credit card payments through the solution. “This was new territory for us,” admits Keefer. “There are a lot of potential hurdles when it comes to building essentially an e-commerce site and taking into account the necessary precautions to safeguard all that personal information we’d be receiving.”
The development team was able to quickly build the solution’s back-end system using the xRM platform. Developers combined an existing xRM-based application with Office Word 2007 to accelerate the staff review and approval process. They added functionality, such as the ability to instantly generate a letter to alert a contractor that the form could not be processed due to insufficient data. “Despite the aggressive timeline, we were ready to go two weeks ahead of schedule,” says White. “That would have been a whole lot harder to do, even with extra contract developer help, had we not used Microsoft.”
- Case-Expense Tracking
As of May 2009, the most complex solution that The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General has developed on xRM is a case expense–tracking application, which is used by the agency’s Bureau of Narcotics Investigation, Organized Crime, and Gaming sections. These departments often work on multijurisdictional investigations with local law enforcement agencies, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigations, and other groups. In a multijurisdictional case, personnel are required to track all the expenses that they incur related to that investigation so that the agency can either request reimbursement or provide it, depending on the case.
Years before, developers used Oracle Forms to build an application for tracking all of those expenses. The agency now wanted to provide its users with more advanced functionality, including business logic and workflow processes to automate and streamline expense review and approval. IT had outsourced the project, but the contracted developers worked for two years and only reached the testing phase, during which agency end users found so many problems that IT eventually cancelled the project.
Based on what it had already accomplished using xRM, IT decided to satisfy its expense-tracking needs with an in-house solution. A single developer produced a rich application—with extensive business logic, fund-movement tracking, invoicing, reporting, and other functionality—within six months. “When the end users tested it and could find no bugs and no error messages, they were literally in tears because they were so happy with the solution,” recalls Keefer.
The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General expects the new case expense–tracking solution to be in full production in June 2009. The solution will interoperate with the agency’s Buy Money solution, which developers also built using the xRM platform and which helps track serial numbers on United States currency as undercover agents use those dollars for law enforcement–related activities, such as buying drugs on the street.
The xRM-based expense-tracking solution will interoperate with the agency’s investigation management system. The solution automatically pulls data from the investigation management system so that staff members no longer retype the same data into two separate applications. Says White, “Creating streamlined, integrated solutions like these saves time and ensures greater accuracy and consistency of our information.”
The application also ties in with Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Reporting Services to give users the ability to generate sophisticated reports, and it works with Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 e-mail messaging and collaboration software for automatic e-mail notifications and with Office Word for easy forms generation.
The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General used xRM as the basis for more than a dozen applications, and that number is growing. Keefer recently turned to the xRM platform to provide a detailed inventory of the agency’s IT environment for disaster-recovery purposes. “Our inventory constantly changes, so I created an application that tracks all change requests and automatically notifies IT as to which IT assets are affected by a particular change,” says Keefer. “At any given time, we can print an up-to-date, custom report of every server, database, application, vendor contact information and responsibilities, and every other aspect of our environment. If something were to happen to our data center, we could rebuild everything using that report.”
The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General made a significant commitment to development using xRM, and that commitment is paying off for the agency. “We’ve adopted Microsoft xRM as a development platform for building feature-rich applications in greatly accelerated timeframes,” says White. “With it, we can deliver 90 percent of the applications that we need to build for our user community, and at a low cost.”Faster Development
The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General has found that developing on xRM takes significantly less time than on a traditional development platform. “On average, we’re able to develop applications at least four times faster instead of traditional methods,” says Keefer. “We get so much more functionality out of the xRM applications than we did with custom applications.”
||On average, we’re able to develop applications at least four times faster …. We get so much more functionality out of the xRM applications than we did with custom applications.
Business Integration Group Manager, Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General
For instance, the agency uses the security model found in the xRM platform to extend security beyond the presentation layer to the data layer. “We’re provided with complete data and presentation layers, which often are the most time consuming to produce in custom development. We save at least six months of development time because we don’t have to come up with that functionality on our own,” says Keefer. “Plus, we don’t have to worry about the data model and user interface. Instead, we can focus on the heart of the application—the business logic. Because we don’t have large numbers of developers and project managers, it’s a real advantage to use built-in functionality to compress the software development life cycle.”Agility to Support the Business
The agency’s use of xRM has helped it better respond to the state’s needs. “Right now Pennsylvania, like many states, is facing a tight budget situation,” says White. “Hiring new IT staff or bringing on contractors is not likely due to fiscal restraints, yet the pressure to serve federal, state, and internal agency needs is unabated. We have to think of ways to be smarter, faster, and do more with what we have.”
For its home-improvement contractor application, the agency had to develop a solution that could accommodate the content from an eight-page registration form and the complexities of accepting contractor payments. And it had to do so within an ambitious timeframe. “The ability to not only meet but exceed our deadline with a solution that delivers high levels of functionality is what we need in IT today,” says White. “Government needs to be more innovative and aggressive in its approach. Microsoft [xRM] is the tool that we’re banking on to help us get there. It’s a tool that facilitates the responsiveness of our organization without sacrificing any of the functionality that we want in our applications.”Flexibility to Adapt to Business Processes
The agency’s IT staff can now quickly adjust solutions to meet users’ existing processes so that agency employees can work comfortably and efficiently. IT staff recently demonstrated an xRM–based application for a new group of end users, some of whom asked for a few additions and adjustments. Says White, “When our developers immediately made their requested changes right there in the room in front of the users—and got them right—one end user said, ‘I’m so happy, I could cry.’ Every CIO wants to hear that! It speaks volumes about the product’s capacity for complex but usable applications.”
Adds Keefer, “We can accommodate significantly more change requests, and users have been completely amazed at how quickly we adapt solutions for them. They used to have to take what they got and alter their business processes to accommodate the software, but now we invert that.”
Developers and users alike appreciate the ability to accommodate user requests well after the requirements-gathering stage. “The ability to fine-tune solutions has created a really positive view of the xRM applications,” says White. “The opportunity to go back and address oversights lends credibility to our developers and what they’re building.”Ease of Use for Increased User Acceptance
The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General believes that its use of the xRM platform boosts user acceptance of new applications. “The importance of building a solution that’s intuitive and easy for end users to work with should not be underestimated,” says White. “Using xRM fosters greater user acceptance, addresses long-standing frustrations with the agency’s previous applications, and enables us to provide our user community with streamlined yet robust solutions to meet the agency’s business needs.”
One of the reasons that the new applications have produced high rates of acceptance is the consistent look and feel of the applications. “By building solutions using xRM, we deliver a consistent presentation and intuitive navigation,” says White. “Our users can follow the same logical sequencing within the different applications they use.”
Many agency employees work with multiple xRM–based solutions, so the fact that those solutions have similar interfaces and similar steps for adding, finding, sorting, merging, and exporting information helps increase effectiveness and productivity. “Users respond well to the familiarity of the applications and need minimal training,” says Keefer. “And once they’ve worked on one application, they’re able to get up and running really quickly on others because the solutions have similar core functionality.” Low Costs
For the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, xRM provides a cost-effective platform for rapid application development. “In this economy, we need to use the resources we have at hand and make the most of our time and dollars,” says White. “When you make an investment in Microsoft, [xRM] you’re not receiving just one application; you can deploy hundreds of applications with the same license. We’ve used Microsoft technology as a true development platform and spread its cost across multiple applications, resulting in far better payback and a faster return on investment.”
Adds Keefer, “Using one platform to solve so many business problems without custom development or additional, specialized software saves us a lot of time and money. I estimate that it would cost us millions of dollars more if we had to generate all these applications using custom development, contractors, and outsourcing. Our new development approach gives us the best of both worlds. We no longer have the time and expense associated with developing from scratch but our ‘off-the-shelf’ tool is highly customizable and flexible.”
Microsoft Dynamics For More Information
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