A paperless manifesto: 7 proposals
- By Heather Hayes
- Oct 03, 2007
Editor's note:This story was updated at 5:15 p.m. Oct. 10. Please go to Corrections & Clarifications to see what has changed.
JoAnne Gray is an assistant administrative officer who used to spend little time at her desk at the Anne Arundel County Council building in Annapolis, Md. Instead, she was usually in the council buildings basement researching legislative history at a residents request, a chore that involved digging through boxes of old bills, resolutions, amendments and backup documentation.
However, an initiative to digitize those 1 million-plus pages of paper records has ended Grays frequent expeditions to the basement. Its cut down tremendously on the time it takes me to research something, she said. And I dont have to physically copy and mail or fax my findings. I can just e-mail it.
That single automation project was simple and affected only the jobs of two people. But it soon proved to be an effective first step in Anne Arundels countywide initiative to become a paperless government.
Were taking baby steps, starting simple and building from there by adding a little more complexity with each new project, said Jack Martin, Anne Arundel Countys assistant information technology officer. Other projects are now under way at the Fire Marshalls Office and the Permits Office, he said. Its a work in progress, but we are, in fact, making progress.
Ever since IT vendors and consultants began touting the vision of a paperless office, overworked, paper-burdened and resource-strapped state and local government officials have dreamed about the possibilities of junking file cabinets, getting rid of interoffice mail routes and reinventing clunky business processes as models of workflow efficiency.
Many agencies have moved forward to achieve their paperless goals, but others still wait on the sidelines. Agencies that decide to go ahead now can benefit from the experience of earlier adopters. Here are some tips from those early adopters.
1. Imagine a better way
Converting a paper-based process to an electronic one should involve more than simply automating the existing routine step for step. Automating the flow of information provides an opportunity to cut unnecessary steps, increase efficiency and improve interaction among departments.
For that reason, the earliest steps of an automation project can be among the most important, several sources said. At this stage, planners should thoroughly identify and analyze the organizations existing business processes, said Scott Swidersky, director of information systems at Quality Associates, a systems integrator that helped Anne Arundel County and other counties with paperless projects.
With that objective business analysis in hand, planners can then assess the feasibility of various workflow alternatives and determine the requirements for a particular technology solution. For example, Howard County, Md., officials had consultants from Quality Associates interview employees in every department to get a sense of how they interacted with one another, the processes they shared and the business rules they followed.
It helps you understand what your departments are doing currently and what they could be doing in the future, Swidersky said. Just the process of collecting all of that information and kind of mapping out the landscape puts you in a better place to make decisions about what your requirements really are, as opposed to just saying we should pick product XYZ because weve heard of it and it sounds good.
The information collected also enables governments to set up an overall long-term plan, even if they dont have the inclination or budget to undertake a paperless project immediately or all at once, said Steve OGwin, a systems analyst for Tulsa, Okla.
With an overall plan in place, organizations can break down the larger implementation plan into manageable phases, OGwin said. That way you have a road map that you can pick up at any time.
2. Pick the right partner
Another critical early-stage step is picking an integrator or vendor to help implement the initiative. Although selection criteria should involve price, technology and skill, Gray also recommends choosing a contractor who can work with users at their level of technical understanding and ask the right questions about process and job requirements.
Gray recalled that when she and her supervisor first began looking into digitizing paper records, they thought they wanted only an archival system. When they began evaluating vendors, however, Quality Associates officials suggested that they think in broader terms about possible solutions. They ended up adding a searchable database to their system, a move that changed the nature of Grays job for the better. For us, it was really a learning process, and they asked us a lot of questions to get us thinking about what was possible and to get clarity on what we really needed, she said.
In some instances, sticking with a familiar application is the right decision when it comes to selecting a partner or solution. That approach worked well for some paperless projects that Illinois officials undertook, said John Rigg, manager of workflow automation for the state.
Illinois officials chose Adobes Acrobat and Web forms technology for several projects, including automating a weekly federal reporting function for its community-based Temporary Assistance to Needy Family (TANF) providers.
Adobes Acrobat was something that our users were used to and felt comfortable with, Rigg said. Weve found that it goes a long way towards easing a lot of your user acceptance and training issues.
3. Think big, but start small
The best way to achieve a paperless organization is to start with projects that provide the best return on investment, said Mike Wenzel, vice president of Americas sales and marketing at Esker, a document management company. Simple implementations and immediate results facilitate organizational support for future expansion, he said.
That has certainly been the case for Tulsa, which started with a desktop faxing application that enables employees department-wide to fax mainframe-created purchase orders directly to their business partners. Before, everything was done by mail.
Now theyre faxed automatically every night, and theres no human intervention and no paper, OGwin said. The city is now working to implement a workflow application that will eliminate paper flow between departments, he said.
Wenzel agreed that internal forms, such as purchase requisitions, vacation requests, and expense and time sheets, are an excellent starting place for automation efforts. Those forms can be easily automated with Web forms and simple workflow to provide better visibility and faster processing. Processes can be automated one at a time to minimize risks and change management, Wenzel said.
Even the smallest steps in a paperless initiative count if they move the organization toward greater efficiency. In Wichita, Kan., the Purchasing Department started its journey toward paperless operations by networking its multifunction printers, which have built-in scanners, and using eCopy document management software to digitize its paper-based contracts.
That move hasnt completely automated the workflow process. Employees still route contracts first to a users e-mail inbox. Then someone has to forward the contract image to a laser fische machine for permanent storage. Right now, its really a two-step process, a workaround of sorts, said Melinda Walker, Wichitas purchasing manager. But were working on the next phase, which is to have one-step scanning and a workflow process.
4. The more, the merrier
There can be many people involved in a typical government business process. Line-of-business managers, budget directors and front-line employees from multiple departments can each have different perspectives on the same process. Everyone can be a contributor to the projects planning and implementation, said Renee Thomas, director of field marketing at Esker.
You really need to dig down deep, first to the process supervisor and then to the actual user, the person who will be physically using the system, Thomas said. This group is often overlooked, but they are often the people who can offer the best ideas for improvements beyond merely automating the paper process.
5. Show, dont tell
Training and change management coaching are as important to the overall project and implementation plan as any technical requirements. Giving up paper is often harder than it sounds for end-users, Wenzel said. Without proper training and coaching, users will sometimes simply print electronic documents to maintain previous habits, thus eliminating the benefits of paperless automation.
Getting employees involved early can also smooth user acceptance of the new system. When working with state and local agencies, Esker holds project kickoff meetings for employees who will be using the system. Those meetings include demonstrations of the technology and paperless processes.
In Tulsa, OGwin takes the most influential users with him to on-site visits so they can see the paperless system in action and ask questions of the people who have begun using it. We can talk about and describe it all day, but theres nothing like actually being able to really show the benefits to them, he said. It really makes a difference in their understanding of how it can help on a day-to-day basis.
6. Hire a specialist
Just as networks are important enough to warrant hiring a network administrator, government executives interested in implementing agencywide paperless solutions should weigh the benefits of having a dedicated in-house document management specialist.
Howard County and Anne Arundel County have created positions for a person to oversee operational issues and plan for future enhancements and expanded deployments in new areas.
That is really forward thinking on their part, because it helps create a culture that supports a true document management environment, Swidersky said. Plus it provides reassurance to the end user that theyre on the right course, because theyve got a member of their direct team who is involved in the planning sessions, who is working with the vendor and relaying requirements information and who is making recommendations along the way.
7. Just do it
Sometimes the best course of action is to carefully pick a project and then jump in, Rigg said. With that mind-set, Illinois officials were able to implement a Web-based application for its TANF project in four weeks. During the first week after project managers completed the system, it received more than 18,000 hits.
Theres nothing magical about what we did, Rigg said. We just did our homework and then got it up and running, figuring that any bugs would, in time, take care of themselves.
The results include increased data accuracy; less time and cost involved in filling out, mailing and processing paper forms; and decreased resolution time, Rigg said. Were on to picking out our next project now, he added. Our hope is to eventually make everything paperless. Just the sheer volume of filing cabinets that would go away over time and the number of trees we would save is staggering to think about.
Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached at [email protected].