One thing that government tries to do is fix things that are not being taken care of by the private sector. You’ll find this happening quite often in the affordable housing department.
Perfect example: The flip side of our last decade’s real estate boom was that entire segments of the population could not afford housing. In my department in Arizona, we struggled to fund housing across a wide spectrum of income levels and situations – from emergency housing for the homeless to housing for veterans with disabilities to rental housing for working families who just couldn’t afford Arizona’s rising house prices. To do this, we had to mix funding from sources as diverse as IRS tax credits, HUD and state funds from a Housing Trust Fund.
It’s always been understood that to put “Housing First,” you must mix money from many sources. But, no one ever thought about the amount of documentation and compliance issues that this creates for hard-working housing agency staff.
It was exactly this complex environment that got me thinking about how our agency could manage it with greater efficiency and ease. There must be a better way!
And there was. You could call this complex compliance issue my document management and workflow “aha moment.” To continue to get these critical funds, the department has to remain in compliance with the rules of all your funders (true of any government agency, regardless of mission). But try remaining in compliance when you are reducing staff at the same time!
Here’s four ways that I used these tools to empower the staff at the agency.
1. Enforcing the program’s rules
First, workflows can make sure the housing program’s rules are taken care of in a way that a physical paper files never could. They ensure that required documentation has been received, and even can identify when documents are missing. If an environmental review is not in the electronic file, the funds request can’t move forward, and a notification e-mail to the project manager is automatically sent.
2. Replacing paper with electronic forms
Workflows are anchored by an amazing thing called electronic forms. They can do some cool things like preliminary tests for eligibility, checking data or starting a process. With electronic forms and a website, customers can apply for programs online and check the status of their project or application online, saving calls to your office while enhancing your customer service.
3. Focusing workers on making decisions – not paper-pushing
The nice thing about workflow is that it removes some of the mundane workload from housing staff. This leaves them more time for higher value tasks like developing housing projects for people with disabilities or the chronically homeless. Using a workflow option is almost like adding more staff!
4. Cutting the paper in the name of information access
While the project management options from a workflow deployment are huge, reducing the burden of the physical paper storage should not be ignored. My department assisted first-time homebuyers, which meant that our files resembled banks – and came with a 30-plus years records retention plan. So, the more successful we were at helping families, the bigger our file storage problem became.
Luckily, we could send files offsite to state archives, but this removed convenient access to files and this made folks at the agency very unhappy. Enter document management and, suddenly, all files could be accessed regardless of where the paper is stored. This is a huge help to housing agencies that have such long compliance periods, but that also need to regularly access files.
So, “Housing First” policies are still important, but now for very different reasons. My concern remains that this important work not be hindered by the compliance difficulties and paper storage requirements of running these agencies. Document management and workflow automation can help. And, when you invest in these technologies, you are helping two important groups of people: those who need safe, decent and affordable housing, and the dedicated folks who work to accomplish this need every day.