5 Ways Government Can Ditch Paper and Go Digital

Government agencies have a love-hate relationship with paper that has been years in the making.

There are countless policies and forms that require wet signatures, meaning those documents must be printed, signed, mailed or faxed and routed to the right person for approval. Even internally, some employees just can’t kick the habit of printing paper.

But the limitations of government’s paper dependencies have been magnified during the coronavirus pandemic in ways that agencies had never seen. The need to digitize processes and forms quickly shifted from being viewed as a nice-to-have to a mission-critical necessity.

“The pandemic has cast a spotlight on the backlog that can be created if you are still dealing with a lot of paper,” said Dustin Swaybe, Principal at customer experience firm SATRDÉ and a former state government employee in Tennessee. “Digitizing processes will create a better and more efficient government.”

Swaybe’s comments came during GovLoop’s recent virtual summit, “All Roads Lead to Empowered Citizens: The Power of Innovative Tech.” He was joined by Craig Orgeron, Mississippi’s Chief Information Officer, and Gabe Caldwell, Director of Technology Partnerships at Formstack. Formstack specializes in helping organizations easily build custom forms, create documents and collect e-signatures.

The panel delved into the challenges and benefits of going digital and key areas that are ripe for digitization, including grants processes and traditional phone or in-person requests. In Mississippi,  the state’s online chatbot fields 3,600 queries a month, and there are hundreds of interactions that people can have with Missi the chatbot. She’s been especially helpful in fielding the public’s COVID-19 questions round-the-clock. Each of those queries could have been 5- to 10-minute calls with a live operator, but Missi was able to resolve those issues well past the government’s operating hours and at a fraction of the cost.

Orgeron encouraged agencies to consider what kind of services customers are interested in. “You can really look at your metrics, [and] try to look at what they are calling and asking about,” he said. “What are you spending a lot of time doing repeatedly? What tasks can be automated? Where is staff spending the bulk of their time.”

These are key indicators for digitization efforts, he said.

“Digitizing paper-based forms are low-hanging fruit,” Caldwell added. The panelists agreed that the evolution of digitization will involve greater use of artificial intelligence and omnichannel platforms to proactively address and anticipate users’ needs.

Caldwell outlined five areas that are ripe for digitization today:

1. Paper forms. There are hundreds of PDFs government employees must sort through while the public waits and hopes for agencies to fulfill their requests. Turning static paper documents into online forms saves time, money and hassle for everyone involved.

2. Hiring. The process can be painful for both applicants and hiring managers. Having an online application where someone can apply for a job, fill out their information and easily upload data is critical. Having capabilities internally to route documents to the right person for timely review is equally important. Swaybe shared that while working in Tennessee, the state’s move to digitize the unemployment claims process had ripple effects, including reducing the time it took to onboard agents from months to days.

3. Citizen engagement. Feedback is extremely important for agencies, whether they want feedback on trash removal or overall satisfaction with government services. Today, snail mail is a common method for requesting feedback. Instead, agencies can use online surveys via email, text message or other digital platforms. Surveys can and should be simple and can even include pre-populated information about the person filling out the form to save time.

4. Permit management. That could include building or zoning permits, for example. The application process for permits can be very manual and paper-based, leading to long wait times for approvals. Using an online form, those documents are easily accessible to residents. In Mississippi, the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks does provides license services online and took that capability a step further. Since launching an auto-renewal feature, 51% of people who purchased licenses opted in. And 66% of people use mobile devices to access this new feature.

5. Grant processes. Similar to permit management, grant processes can also be highly paper-intensive. By shifting to automated forms and routing, the right people can sign off on key documents faster, leading to more timely decision-making.

Caldwell pointed to fear as a major barrier to digitization — fear of job loss, ease of use, cost and the unknown. “There is a stigma that it will be hard to use and too expensive,” he said. “Today is a different ballgame compared to where we were 10 years ago.”

Don’t miss out on other virtual learning opportunities. Pre-register for GovLoop’s remaining 2020 virtual summits today.

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Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

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Abbe M. Copple

I agree with it all. The only drawback I see is the internet connection. It can be slow or non existent for employees, but this issue with clients can become a negative in many ways. They can’t just move or “fix it”. They lack control and it turns into a blaming game.