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USDA FNS Correspondence Management

The Challenge

The Department of Agriculture Food Nutrition Service responds to thousands of official correspondence requests each year. Developing responses is a complex undertaking that involves a number of stakeholders, each responsible for particular steps within an overall business process. Further complicating matters is the fact that over periods of time, individuals become instrumental in the process due to their knowledge and experience. When those individuals leave the organization, critical knowledge is lost. This requires re-creation of work performed in the past, resulting in duplication of effort and  lost opportunity to leverage prior work.  Recognizing these challenges, the USDA FNS awarded a competitive contract to Procentrix to design and implement a Correspondence Management solution to help streamline business processes and establish a repository of reusable information.

Business Solution

​The correspondence management solution needed to be extremely easy to use and flexible enough to meet the needs of a broad audience. People needed to be able to focus their time and energy on developing the response, not on learning complex software systems. The solution that Procentrix developed for FNS uses Microsoft SharePoint and Office products. Basically, the system allows people to perform their work using the tools that they are most familiar with like Microsoft Word and SharePoint. The solution wraps context around work via “work pages” which are collections of information moved through an automated workflow. Stored with this package is a series of information describing the nature of the correspondence, what actions have been taken on it, etc. An intuitive web-based user interface enables people to use the system with little or no training required. When it is an individual’s responsibility to perform an action, they are notified via an e-mail containing a link directly back to the work package. People performing work are presented with a clear set of actions that can be taken at particular stages of the business process making it easy for them to act accordingly.  Leadership gain insight into the status of all active correspondence efforts, helping to avoid process bottlenecks so requestors​ receive responses as quickly possible.

Business Results

The Correspondence management solution has been extremely well received throughout FNS. Users of the system agree that the solution simplifies their work and does not introduce extra burden. As of April of 2011, two of FNS’s major offices including Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNP) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have fully integrated the system into their everyday business processes.  These offices are benefiting from an automated workflow which helps its staff perform their work in a consistent and repeatable manner. Furthermore, the work they perform on each correspondence is centrally archived; ensuring that critical information can be easily located by others in the future when similar correspondence inquiries are received.  Hence, not only is the system being used to help simplify everyday business processes, but it is also establishing a rich source of knowledge that will not be lost when people leave the organization.

Technical Solution

​The correspondence management solution was built upon the Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) platform. All facets of the system are exposed directly within FNS’s enterprise SharePoint portal including its data-entry interfaces, workflow enablement, and search / knowledge management.  In building this solution, a full software development life cycle was employed which involved requirements, design, implementation and testing phases.  The system design involved a combination of configurable web parts written using ASP.NET and custom SharePoint event handlers to facilitate a metadata-driven workflow process. This approach enabled flexibility in the workflow process so that behavior changes can be achieved simply by configuring list data with no need to recompile software. The workflow is fully state-machine based, meaning its processes can advance to future states or revert back to any prior state based on actions performed by users.  From a knowledge management perspective, all work packages are managed within a hierarchy organized SharePoint document library which is fully indexed and searchable. This design enables users to seamlessly search for and retrieve archived correspondence packages so that prior work can be leveraged.

Technical Results

The solution showcases how a complex automated business can be wrapped around a set of related information within SharePoint. People often think of SharePoint as simply a document management tool, not realizing its inherent power to automate complex business processes.  This solution was also a first of its kind custom application deployed within the FNS. The IT staff at FNS was extremely satisfied because Procentrix delivered a fully packaged solution file which enabled streamlined deployment into USDA’s User Acceptance and Production SharePoint farms without disruption to any existing operations. Because the solution was built using SharePoint, a proven COTS platform, many of SharePoint’s out of box features and functionality were leveraged. This drastically reduced the time in order to develop, implement and test a system of this complexity.