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Paper is NOT Transparent – The Role of Document Management in Open Government

Difficult budget times produce changes in government. One trend that I have been watching with interest is the drive to use IT to help government be more transparent. Before computers were found in government, a “paper trail” was considered good government because transactions and government decisions could be reviewed and reconstructed using files for the project, expenditure or decision. In fact, this is exactly how auditors review agencies, counties and cities. They sample files and look for adherence to procedures. This tradition is so completely entrenched in government that the ensuing files are now engulfing government. The same tool that used to ensure good decision-making is, instead, draining time from understaffed departments and agencies and by sheer volume, making it impossible to really see what happened.

In my mind, there are at least 3 problems with the physical paper trail.

First, there is the retrieval and missing documents problem. It only takes misfiling a document or an accidental disposal to make the record incomplete. And, when a document is needed, the sheer volume of files, possibly stored in remote locations, makes retrieval difficult and delays inevitable. Once, during my time in state government, we realized we might have overlooked collecting a critical document. Because we had many feet of paper files, we had to open each and every file to determine whether we had collected the required document. This was a necessary, time-consuming and avoidable, low-value activity that took us several days to complete.

A second concern for me is the issue of transparency. This is a multi-level problem. From my perspective, inside an agency, there is a huge need to see where decisions are in the process. In my case, I worked in agencies that awarded grant funds and financing for projects, upwards of 400 projects per year, with many more projects underway. It was our obligation to watch over the project and the funding and ensure that all laws and regulations were followed. Given that the real progress was demonstrated by documents that were everywhere – in the file, in an Inbox, on a desk and in some cases, missing, there was no ability to get a global view of what was happening in our agency or how projects were progressing. Other activities like employee evaluations, hiring or purchasing were similarly held hostage by their paper indicators.

While this internal disorder may be alarming, in today’s budget and staffing climate and with heightened scrutiny about the how/why/when of government spending, the paper trail is simply not going to meet the expectations of our constituents. So, the very technique that was once good government is now sucking up resources and time and contributing to the challenges of providing Government 2.0.

Any government that has ever tried to comply with public records requests knows that files are built up over time and nearly impossible to fully provide through a records request. The public has to wait while the request is fulfilled and then they may or may not receive everything they need because of the difficulty of fully accessing or searching paper files. The delay also serves to increase suspicion about whether the entity is truly providing ALL the records. In fact, it is difficult to know if you are providing the records because to be sure would require handling and reviewing scores of file folders, something that simply cannot be done with the reduced staff that most government agencies have.

So what’s the answer ?

Well, just as computers changed government and websites changed government services, document management can change the way government meets the transparency imperative. Consider these features of a good enterprise content management solution and imagine how they might change the staff and time required to increase transparency.

Enterprise content management systems provide document management to government. This means speedy, comprehensive retrieval without worrying about separate storage locations. In my experience, agencies that use ECM have reduced the time that the auditors spend reviewing files by 50%. The reason? They can find things faster! Imagine how that would help a department, a city, a county or an agency in their daily operations! I could have used that feature for the problem I mentioned above!

Once ECM is in place, many agencies can then use workflow automation to accomplish three key things for today’s government landscape – reduced time to make decisions, the ability to automate tasks to save staff time and the ability to create a dashboard view of where tasks/projects/decision are in a process. This provides staff with a real ability to see what is going on and the creation of electronic files means that low-value tasks like filing related documents together can be accomplished with automation and government decisions can be reached faster because documents can be reviewed simultaneously.

Finally, but most importantly, the decisions are no longer hidden by the paper! The same ECM solution that can save time and money, can provide access to public records through a website or even a kiosk in your waiting room. this is a huge time-savings because it can remove the burden of searching for, photocopying and dispensing records through more traditional public records requests over-the-counter. By proactively providing documents before they are requested, entities can start a new tradition of good government where everyone can find the documents they need, take swift action and keep the good work of government moving forward. And, that’s a government process that should be transparent!

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