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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Online BEAR report card

Now that the BEAR season is over, it's time for me to kibbitz about the online BEAR tool, which we used a lot this year.

First, the overall grade: A-
It really is a good tool. It has a no-frills feel, but I don't like frills, so that's fine with me. It gets the job done, and does it simply.

Good points:
  1. All the info is on one screen. When I review other forms, I have to click through several screens, and the certification window pops up in another browser wind. With the BEAR, everything is right there.
  2. It does the discount calculation for you, checks for errors, etc.

OK, now areas for improvement, most annoying first:

  1. Once I've submitted a BEAR, I can't modify it. And service providers can't modify them at all. It's not unusual for a service provider to want a different amount that I've put in,* and it's usually a small difference, so I would like some ability for service providers to certify a different amount. Better yet, once they've certified a different amount, an email notification would come to me, and I would certify the new amount.
  2. You need to enter a PIN in order to prepare a BEAR. I can't be the only person who wants at least two sets of eyeballs to look at every form before we submit. So as PINmeister I have to log people in so they can prepare forms for my review. Clunky. I'd rather that it work like the other forms, where anyone can prepare the BEAR, but only the PINholder can certify.
  3. A BEAR, once created, cannot be deleted. I'm curious to see how long these orphan BEARs will hang around in the system. (Here's a suggested addition to E-Rate nomenclature: the orphan BEARs should be called Smokies. Get it? Orphan bears?)
  4. Applicant notification emails: The emails I get from the system give me no identifying information other than the invoice number. How about giving me the BEN, or even better the list of FRNs. I've had to modify my tracking system to use invoice numbers so I can keep track of these things.
  5. Service provider notification emails: I've heard from more than one service provider that they get no notification when I submit a BEAR. And since the SPIN Contact Search tool doesn't give out email addresses, we have to make phone calls.
  6. Quirky field validation: If you have a space before or after the pre-discount amount (which is not uncommon when copy-and-pasting from Excel), the discount will calculate correctly, but you'll get an error when you try to certify.

* Why do service providers review the amount, anyway? Service providers are certifying two things on the BEAR: A) We'll turn the reimbursement around in 20 days, and B) we won't use the reimbursement to pay our own expenses. The service provider has no responsibility to review the amount. Now I don't mind having another set of eyes review the amount, but a lot of the time the difference is insignificant. What really gets my goat is service providers demanding that I supply them with account numbers and bills before they'll certify. It's infuriating to have invoices denied while I give service providers information that their own billing system generated. If you can't keep track of your own clients billing, just certify the damn form.

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