Open Forest AppLICATION delivers Intuitive online experience for PERMIT PURCHASES

Solution improves customer experience and back-office process for permit purchases

Background

Cynerge developed Open Forest, a public-facing application that is used to issue permits for Christmas trees, temporary outfitters, and non-commercial use permits. It encompasses four permit types and 19 different National Forests within the United States.

The Open Forest permitting system was created to streamline and modernize the United States Forest Service’s permit system that had been in place for over five decades. This permitting system allows the public access to National Forests for day trips, cutting down Christmas trees, collecting firewood, and special purposes such as guided camping tours and Boy Scout camping events. The current permitting system would move from a face-to-face process requiring the public to walk into a regional office and purchase a permit from a Forest Service Agent. This was an entirely manual process that required the officer to collect and write information onto a paper form, collect money, and mail both to a separate financial management group that would input the data and quantify it for future use.

The USFS wanted to move this system to a fully online process that would both issue numerous types of permits and take payments. With an online process, the public would have greater access to permits without having to take the extra step of stopping at the regional office and it would alleviate the burden on field officers who often faced difficulties with the manual process. It also reduced costs associated with quantifying the data.

Challenges

One challenge in automating the permitting tasks was that there was no existing process automation. It was a 50-year-old completely manual process that the USFS wanted translated into an intuitive and automated process. As this is a core competency for Cynerge, our staff was able to lead the effort in documenting and perfecting the process and all of the details. It took numerous meetings with USFS staff, managers, resource management, field officers, and Forest Service law enforcement. Every aspect of the process, the functional requirements, and the customer requirements were evaluated and translated into an online process.

Cynerge worked with everyone at every step to have a deep understanding of the issues from every perspective. To gain the public’s perspective, Cynerge staff needed to find USFS customers who utilized the process—especially those that had done so repeatedly who could provide valuable feedback. Without a database to search from, we had to pour through paper records to find those customers to engage.

Additional hurdles required determining how to segregate sensitive forest service data from the public system while still requiring only one authentication system, how to integrate the payment system with their existing financial management software, and how to print multiple types of permits that are clearly identifiable from 20 yards away.

Solutions

Cynerge maintains a “product mindset” when it comes to software development. We view our work as something that does not lead to the end of a job or closeout of the contract, but as a product that can and should be continuously updated and improved. We want our product to be utilized for years to come and design it so that can be incorporated with or into new technologies and products that aren’t available today. We start with a proven suite of technology that is familiar and used by the USFS developers. We then add some modernization to one or two key features to ensure it won’t overwhelm the support staff or end users. In this case, we pushed the USFS into utilizing AWS cloud hosting. This was a proven technology, but not one used by USFS.

Once initiated, the USFS saw the benefits of cloud hosting and a movement was spurred within the agency to develop other applications on the cloud. Currently, approximately 90% of the agency’s apps are utilizing cloud hosting. We were able to reduce a typical deployment process from 2-6 weeks to 6 minutes by leveraging cloud infrastructure with DevOps automation. This also helped to reduce the number of errors as CI/CD testing suites can be integrated, reducing bugs by a factor of 10-fold. We tested 100% of the code during development.

Cynerge provided UX/UI design including wireframes and design mockups, custom development, and agile project management, as well as infrastructure and hosting for the application. On the front end (user side/interface), the tool was built using Angular 10 and on the back end, Node JS and Sequelize, an object relational mapping tool, was used to map that to the PostgreSQL database. 

To keep the sensitive USFS data safe, Cynerge built and utilized two separate authentication sites, login.gov and USDA EOps for USFS personnel and administrators. Permissions were set up that allowed staff access to preconfigure reports for efficiency and ease of reporting. With input from all levels of the USFS, we created over a dozen reports for each of the 13 national forests.  We also brought in groundbreaking integration within the USFS by linking their Forest Management System and timber database to the Open Forest application. This was something the USFS did not have, and it allowed them more seamless access and greater efficiencies. For payment, Cynerge integrated with the Pay.gov payment system.

Cynerge uses an agile process for software development with stringent testing protocols. Every two weeks Cynerge hosted user testing to validate the functionality prior to moving on. This was done with either USFS personnel or potential customers—always a different feature to provide user feedback. The overall idea for Open Forest application was to create human-centered design that didn’t require user instructions or a tutorial. During the user testing sessions, we would give a set of instructions to the group and virtually watch their progress through the task as they were doing it. We would note at what points they had questions, were confused or frustrated, and make design changes to improve the user experience. We also added help widgets to provide know-as-you-go instructions to make it as user-friendly as possible. We wanted to ensure that a customer using the system the first time can have a successful outcome.

Transitioning from a manual process to an automated one and the initial Open Forest release took approximately 18 months for development and remained in pilot status for about two years. After two years of use, the Department of the Interior required that all applications must be incorporated into rec.gov and it was shut down. Because of Cynerge’s product mindset and advanced planning for future upgrades, the switch was relatively easy–almost being a cut and paste input into the rec.gov system.

In addition to building the solution, Cynerge also assisted in redesigning the permits and enabling customer self-service. In the event a user didn’t have a home printer, we designed a system to send a confirmation email with a printable copy of the permit attached. This allowed users to go into a USFS office and have the permit printed to ensure greater accessibility to all people.

Results

The pilot program involved 13 national forests and, in 2018, processed 16,783 permits for 21,074 Christmas trees. Cynerge kept detailed records of customer and staff surveys and customer support requests and resolutions. A summary of those results are as follows:

  • 89% users of Open Forest would recommend and use it again for their permits
  • 85% of USFS personnel describe it as NOT cumbersome
  • 71% of users are very satisfied with system
  • 53% customers did not want any changes to the system saying the site is perfect
  • Top liked survey results were: opportunity, convenience, reduced workload, easy to query sales, easy to purchase
  • Out of 17,000 transactions, there were only 57 instances of defects—and the majority of those were permit printing errors with the customers’ printers

Freeform comments on surveys consisted mainly of thank you notes for the improved process, one of them stating, “Wowzers, this is amazing. Saves a ton of time.”

Overall, the application provided the public with a more flexible, online option for obtaining permits to use their public lands while eliminating doubt and uncertainty around the permitting process. The standardized application aspects of the permitting program across several national forests generated generating $174,715.00 in revenue – with only 33 true help requests needed.

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