When I started in 2006, I walked into an office that had little more than a telephone and a cabinet full of out-of-date forms. I toured other offices to meet my colleagues and to identify weaknesses in my own office. I started to formulate a plan.
The employees did not have email or voicemail on their telephones. This changed at the earliest possible time. With email, my staff could reply near instantaneously to constituent concerns. With voicemail, if my staff was helping other constituents, my staff could easily reach back out to their inquiries when available. Our outreach to the public increased allowing the constituents direct access to my staff. We began surveying the public around the same time. Our survey results increased year after year. This is the heart and soul of the Register of Wills office – public service. When you call the office, you are greeted with a live person. I hate answering machines, they serve only to frustrate. This is not good public service. My staff will always greet you whether you call or walk through the door.
In my first campaign, I was startled to learn that the constituents had little idea about the purpose of the Register of Wills. I immediately began my public outreach program, regularly attending senior centers, county civic organizations, county offices, and other public forums. I started a booth at the county fair which we run every year since I started. I lecture at the local college. I have a speaking engagement once per week, on average. Our constituents started to know what to expect before they came into the office.
The paper record scanning backlog was enormous – years’ worth of paper records waiting to be scanned on a single flatbed scanner. I purchased more scanners. Furthermore, there were cabinets of microfilm deteriorating from the 80’s containing every record from 1875 to the mid-80’s. The paper backlog began where the microfilm ended. I instituted two scanning projects – one paper scanning project and one microfilm scanning project. Each project was so enormous that they took years to complete. The paper scanning project image count was in the hundreds of thousands and the microfilm project was over one million scanned pages. This was only the beginning of the plan.
Our office had no clear means of conducting business internally. I thought – this place needs a central hub for the staff to utilize to direct traffic. I instituted an intranet website and hired competent staff members to create and operate it. Our workflow became increasingly more efficient and more uniform. Paper records gave way to electronic records. Moving all the work product from paper to a computer system was an enormous undertaking as well, still being innovated to this day, reducing time spent on meaningless internal paperwork allowing the staff to focus on the true mission – the public. Now, my staff can print form letters, take notes, request assistance, communicate instantaneously, conduct business, gain supervisory approvals, submit their timecards, train for the job, and more on this intranet. Moreover, having all the training information in one place guarantees that each staff member is performing the same job the same way. Again, part of the plan.
The amount of paper records stored in this office were enormous. Sixty or more large file cabinets full of long closed estates. I thought – there is a better way. I instituted a program to reduce our inventory by sending the closed estates to Maryland Archives. I also participated in legislation we call the Paper Reduction Initiative which essentially gives the honor and privilege of the permanent record to the electronic system versus the paper copies. This lets us reduce the amount of stored paper in-office and changed the law to have the electronic system be the “official working copy.” We can now dispose of closed estates 6 months after they close. This saves the state money and guarantees the permanent retention of all docket records. This is a big step towards the ultimate goal.
The will vault was disorganized. The cabinetry was a century old and the wills were not properly indexed. Furthermore, there were wills of many constituents that had passed away without any estate. I instituted a project to make these wills of the deceased public records, so the families could have access to their loved one’s wills. Over many years and using the freed filing cabinets from the Paper Reduction Initiative, the will vault, once a dark cavern with century old storage mechanisms, became a brightly lit, well organized and indexed, safe, and ample storage warehouse for the wills of the constituents in the county. Again, part of the plan.
Paper comes into the office by three means – over the counter, in the mail, and generated by my staff members in service to the public. In the beginning, all three of those means of collecting paper required different processes for handling. I thought – this process should be the same no matter what. Part of the intranet system and the software in general in use in the office is to make the paper handling universal. This guarantees that every paper is treated with the utmost care and is tracked through the entire life cycle. The moment a paper comes through the mail – we docket and scan. The moment a paper crosses the counter – we docket and scan. The moment our staff serves the public and generates estates for public in need – we docket and scan. No other court office does this – not the public service aspect or the instant recordation. These records are immediately available in-office and online. All part of the plan.
The Register of Wills website is a warehouse of tutorials, publications, information about estates and trusts, and a depository for every single form in use by our office. The public can reach our website and find out everything they need to know to successfully file an estate with any office without additional counsel or assistance. We have packets for every type of estate filing with accompanying instructional material.
In 2014 I started accepting credit cards in my office. This allows the public to pay fees and taxes in-house and online at their convenience 24/7. We were the test county for accepting credit cards. Since then, my jurisdiction has been the quintessential test jurisdiction for every single technology initiative. We began electronically invoicing payments and accepting payments through our electronic invoicing system. We further reduced reliance on paper by turning our entire accounting system into an electronic system. One step closer to the ultimate plan.
The amount of money spent on mail in my office is extraordinary. Furthermore, the Maryland Rules required that all service be sent via certified mail. There is a 10-fold increase in postage cost for certified mail over regular mail that the constituents had to pay as a legal requirement. Furthermore, nearly every attorney advises their client not to collect certified mail. Much of the service performed from this office using certified mail was not received, thus doing the public a disservice. This was unacceptable. We successfully changed the Maryland Rules to alleviate the certified mail requirement saving the constituents more than $20,000 per year in postage fees. They also receive service much more effectively.
In 2017 we became the first jurisdiction to provide online copies of all the scanned documents, from the paper scanning project, to the microfilm scanning project, to the up-to-the-minute scanning of every single piece of paper that my office collects. And because we changed the law to have the electronic record be the official record, we are serving the public the true, most current record, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, using their credit cards in the comfort of their own home. This is arguably the largest stepping stone to the next phase of the plan.
I keep referencing my plan. What is this plan, you ask? To get the business of the Register of Wills fully online with the best e-filing system in the state. I don’t report to the administrative office of courts like the circuit courts do. Their MDEC initiative, while having good intentions, does not serve the public adequately. We have the unique opportunity to observe their e-filing system from the third-person and learn from their mistakes. We have. Now I sit on a committee with the purpose of automating every possible function of the Register of Wills and have staff representation for the workflow hardware and software to make this happen. Every single initiative leading to this one was part of a larger plan, all in preparation to having every single Register of Wills service available to the public in their home or office.
This makes the office as accessible to the public as humanly possible. We cannot lower the bar enough. We are here to serve the public. This is our mission. And we will do this the best way we know how – through efficient use of technology, cost savings, and kindness. Kindness and efficiency never go out of style.