We've talked about reasons why your government should go paperless – but how do you get started? The goal of going paperless isn’t just to eliminate paper from the government office. Rather, it’s about streamlining the cumbersome processes that are currently employed in most of our agencies.
In order to tie everything together, agencies need to:
- Increase efficiency: Use the digital tools at hand to more efficiently deal with items that were previously printed, like memos and meeting notes.
- Automate data entry: Take steps to ensure that new information coming in is in a digital form, and automatically entered into appropriate databases.
- Digitize old files: Improve access to historical data by digitizing it and hosting it in a centralized, searchable location.
- Automate workflows: Use software workflows to replicate and streamline existing paper handling processes.
- Educate constituents: Teach constituents about new online services, while making sure those without internet access aren’t getting left behind.
5 steps to going paperless
1. Start using digital tools
A great way to get started is to implement common digital tools in your daily work. Many of these tools are already available to municipal governments at no cost. Often, it’s just getting in the habit of emailing a file to someone, rather than printing it out and walking it to his or her desk.
Here are some good first steps to implement:
Internal file sharing: Using tools like Dropbox, Box, or an internal server can help avoid problems with versioning, misplaced files, and disseminating information. Instead of printing out a document to get your colleague’s comments, you can simply send them an email linking to the correct file on the server.
Document collaboration: With a document collaboration tool like Google Docs, you can work simultaneously with colleagues on a document or spreadsheet, leave each other comments, and compare earlier versions – all from the comfort of your desk.
Electronic meeting handouts: Instead of distributing huge paper packets before meetings, provide employees with tablets that can access the document packet from a central server. That cuts down on wasted printouts, and ensures everyone has the meeting notes at hand.
Fax servers: If your organization still relies heavily on faxes, investing in a fax server can streamline your workflow immensely. Incoming faxes are delivered electronically to pertinent individuals, and outgoing faxes can be sent to the fax machine via email. All without making multiple trips to the machine. It’s also more secure, since sensitive faxes will never be lying around the printer waiting to be picked up.
2. Minimize incoming paper
Your organization won’t go paperless in a day, and that’s fine – it can take time to become comfortable with the process. It’s most helpful to begin with one small process in a single department and expand from there.
A good first step is to find a process that’s heavy with incoming documents, such as permit applications, and digitize it on the front end. In addition to accepting paper applications, invest in a software that allows your organization to accept digital applications for things such as building permits, pet licensing, and vending permits.
The information gathered in those digital applications will automatically be added to a centralized database, saving your clerks the step of processing applications manually. Additionally, the system can be set up to send an email notification to the correct department in order to complete the application process.
3. Digitize back-end documents
The idea of digitizing a century or more’s worth of paper records can be daunting for a municipal agency, but it’s an important one to take. Start by prioritizing records in order of importance, and work your way down the list one small step at a time.
One way to gauge that is by how many requests come in for a certain type of data, whether through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) inquiries, other citizen requests, or interdepartmental requests. Data that should be publicly available, like property information, can be added to a public-facing GIS map, or listed in a searchable database.
Be sure to make the information usable. Simply scanning physical documents into digital PDFs to recreate your agency’s existing file system may technically be “paperless,” but unless that information is machine readable and accessible across multiple platforms, it won’t help.
4. Use automated workflows to streamline data handling
Although automating workflows may sound complicated, it’s simply an extension of the physical workflows you already use to manage documents. When an application comes in normally, it may arrive on the desk of the central clerk, who then routes it to the correct department, where it will be processed, then sent on to a final department for approval.
With workflow automation software and digital documents, these same processes can be automated. Incoming digital applications, for example, are automatically routed to the correct department. Missing approvals or required documents can be identified by the software and the appropriate party notified, which can cut out days or weeks of turnaround time spent reviewing applications and requesting documentation. Issuance is just as easy when automated with email and application templates that are automatically printed with Mail Merge to fill in applicant information.
5. Get your constituents on board
While the move to paperless government is crucial for organizations looking to save money and engage a younger generation of constituents, it’s equally important to focus efforts on reaching out to the vulnerable populations in your district – the elderly, the poor, and minorities – who may not have internet access or be comfortable with the technology required to submit digital applications, pay their bills online, or access your agency’s GIS platform.
When moving constituent services online, organizations need to make sure they’re providing equal access to information and support for all demographics.
To ensure none of your constituents are left behind, consider these best practices.
Ready to go paperless?