Opinion Piece: Improving workflows in Government with advanced electronic signatures

BY AVI ROSE, SOUTH AFRICA COUNTRY MANAGER AT ARX - NOVEMBER 27, 2014

The South African public sector, including national government departments and all 284 local municipalities, is under increasing pressure to reduce operational costs and streamline processes in order to become more efficient. Additionally, Government departments are faced with the challenge of limited human and monetary resources.

In order to deliver better, more efficient and cost effective service to their customers - the citizens of South Africa - improved workflows are required. Process automation is one way of achieving this aim, and South Africa’s Government is fairly advanced in terms of the adoption of such solutions.

However, the reliance on paper-based processes when it comes to document and contract signing represents a significant stumbling block. Advanced electronic signatures offer the ideal solution to this challenge, streamlining signature-dependent processes whilst minimising the risk of fraudulent incidents.

South Africa’s public sector is a major organisation with hundreds of thousands of employees and certain set procedures that have been put into place in an attempt to standardise practices across the establishment.

One of these processes is the requirement for certain parties such as suppliers and customers (the public), to sign and countersign specific documents and contracts. While this is done for risk and compliance reasons, it also causes significant delays and decreases productivity levels.

Paper-based ‘wet ink’ signatures require the masses of documents generated by the different Government departments to be printed and then presented physically to all of the relevant parties in order to collect their signatures. This may require the document to be sent to various locations within a building or in different geographical locations.

It is also entirely dependent on the in-person availability of the required signatories, while the more senior staff are increasingly likely to be out of the office for extended periods so that their signatures cannot be obtained in an expedient manner.

The upshot of this is that signature-dependent processes can take days and even weeks to complete; a costly and time-consuming procedure that delays projects and thus, negatively affects Government’s ability to deliver timely service to its constituents.

For example, a contract for a roads improvement project may require the signature of the minister of transport. If the minister is out of office for a lengthy period of time and the project cannot go ahead without his or her signature, delaying the entire delivery of service solely due to the outdated signature process.

The use of advanced electronic signatures rapidly transforms signature-dependent processes from costly, cumbersome and time consuming to highly efficient and cost effective.

The implementation of these solutions improves workflows almost immediately, and delivers a fast Return on Investment (ROI), making it an ideal ‘quick win’ solution. In fact, a 2013 survey from AIIM titled ‘Digital Signatures – Making the Business case’, reported that 81% of organisations that have deployed digital signatures recoup their investment in less than a year.

Advanced electronic signatures offer a secure solution based on Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) technology, the only signature standard published, maintained and accepted by governments around the world, as well as by various independent bodies.

Using cryptographic operations, a “fingerprint” unique to both the signer and the content is created, ensuring both signer identity and document integrity, and preventing the risk of deniability or repudiation. In addition, because they are based on standards, advanced electronic signatures can be easily validated using widely available applications such as Microsoft Word and Adobe Reader, without the need for proprietary software.

Advanced electronic signatures are the ideal solution for Government organisations. They are non-proprietary in nature, offering global acceptance and security assurance, while ensuring compliance with local regulations such as the Protection of Personal Information (PoPI) Act.

They also easily work with most content authoring applications and document management systems, enabling the organisation to keep using the systems and processes they already have in place.

Advanced electronic signatures offer a number of benefits to Government, including significant reductions in the cost of paper processing and physical document storage and the staff required to handle document processing, as well as vastly improved turnaround times. This ensures that paper-related workflow bottlenecks are eliminated so that projects experience far fewer delays, which in turn results in increased satisfaction on the part of citizens and suppliers.

In addition, advanced electronic signatures are legally enforceable and fully secure, reduce the risk of fraud and create tamper-proof signatures and documents that can be easily validated at any time in the future. This helps to create truly paperless, highly efficient digital environments for government and for the communities served.