Mad Cow crisis tested the limits of AgCan’s content management system

Nothing tests the limits of a new content management system like a real-world crisis, and that’s exactly what happened at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada when Mad Cow disease hit during implementation of an executive correspondence initiative.

In June 2003 the agency had embarked on a mission

to better share and control all document-based information across the country, specifically executive correspondence such as ministerial inquiries and briefs. The goal was to see information requests became electronic, not paper-based, and to give senior officials the ability to handle, track and store correspondence from constituents and stakeholders. The project, which was completed around mid-2004, won a GTEC award last year. In a department of 6,000 users, there were a lot of disconnected information management systems that weren’t linked to each other, which meant no one could readily share information. The executive correspondence project began initial rollout, and right in the middle of implementation the Mad Cow crisis hit at the very point when sharing of information was critical.

“”Our correspondence went up 300 per cent overnight while implementing the new system,”” says Dan Larocque, who was the senior project manager at AgriDOC, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada at the time of the project roll-out. (Laroque, who has since moved to Public Works and Government Services Canada, will promote enterprise executive correspondence for all departments as well as promoting the uptake of electronic document managment for the next three years.)

The agency had chosen Ottawa-based Hummingbird’s enterprise content management tools Hummingbird DM and Hummingbird Workflow and the system was built on top of the government’s electronic document and records management application. Agriculture and Agri-Food’s Executive Correspondence Management System (ECMS) works with AgriDOC, the agency’s implementation of the federal government’s Records, Document, and Information Management System (RDIMS). The main users of the ECMS, which is compatible with the agency’s database and e-mail systems and word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation softwarem are ministerial people.

The Mad Cow, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) incident, became “”one of the largest challenges”” in the project, says Jeff Lamirande, who served as CGI’s project manager on the implementation. “”It took all the risks and kind of heightened them considerably,”” he says. “”When BSE hit the volume of correspondence the system handles basically tripled within the span of a week. We were right in the middle of implementing and testing the application for production. Take the normal risks of a project and then you kind of turn them up two or three points of volume because all of a sudden there is a political crisis going on.””

As end users were dealing with the crisis, Lamirande says they quickly realized the value of correspondence management tools. “”They had to organize where the various pieces of correspondence were and who had what. With the new tools they could do a query and see where the status was right off the bat.””

Executive correspondence management is common in the government sector, says Cheryl McKinnon, industry manager, government sector for Hummingbird. “”Basically any time a citizen, taxpayer or business needs to request information from either their elected official or senior management within a particular agency or department there is a requirement to make sure that incoming correspondence is captured and tracked and put through an appropriate workflow, and that the response is generated by a subject matter expert with the authority to speak on that topic,”” says McKinnon.

Lamirande said the BSE crisis was “”the fastest possible way”” to work through any kinks and test the system under fire.

In the future, Larocque says other business solutions will be added, such as contract management, intellectual property management, and the public inquiry response system. “”It will be a centralized repository of all the corporate assets and it becomes more valuable over time,”” he says.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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