When Public Housing Authority Management Means Document Management

If you’re a regular reader, you’ve probably wondered “Why does Terri get so jazzed about document management and government?” For the most part, it comes down to three words: public housing authorities (PHAs).

PHAs? If yes, you know why I think document management’s a game changer in government. The legislation creating public housing and authorities to manage the program was passed in the 1930s, which may explain why, historically, these agencies have been buried in paper. Simply put, the PHA had to develop a way to collect, store, manage and update data long before the computer, email, the Internet and the database.

Government agencies, including PHAs, have to do the work of government while searching for innovation (and did I mention ways to afford innovation?). Therefore, it is often slower to move forward with technologies like ECM. (You try to re-do your database while interviewing 600 people in 22 business days!) And, what do you do if the agency that audits your files says you must retain everything in paper for the life of your applicant? These are just a small part of the struggles of PHAs.

But, as I found out at a recent housing technology conference, this old school way of doing things is going away.

For the first time ever, HUD validated that they support electronic files, opening the door for PHAs to embrace ECM. And, the questions from the audience (and perhaps more importantly, the answers from HUD) showed that, almost universally, PHAs were considering document management!

That said, what would their document management solution look like and what kind of positive change can they expect?

The first piece is a radical decrease in cost and staff time devoted to managing paper, and the tasks that can now be eliminated. For example, one PHA has reduced the time to create mailings by 66 percent because it can now use workflow to automate the packet creation for its monthly re-certification process. Another housing agency is saving more than $150,000 per year in storage costs by eliminating file cabinets.

Staff time is no longer needed for filing. This is a major step forward. But perhaps more importantly, the fact that retrieval of documents changes from days or hours to seconds, with the biggest returns coming when you previously needed to consult documents that have been moved to offsite or file room storage.

Security continues to be a major concern for PHAs, especially since the advent of online income verification services. This information used to be printed out, but with ECM tools like a virtual print driver, online verification screens can be captured electronically and immediately archived into your document management repository. By keeping this information electronically, the security within your ECM solution can protect this confidential data, therefore helping PHAs meet their regulatory requirements for securing these documents.

Here’s some anecdotal evidence to support this point. Recently, one PHA told me that their concerns about security of information stored on paper documents was the major motivator in their ECM selection. They worried that if they continued to use paper, they could never secure this information – particularly since they were out of storage space, leaving an unbelievable third of their files to be on the staff’s desks.

But maybe the biggest impact strategic ECM initiatives have on PHAs is related to helping employees keep up with their work. Currently, these employees spend a lot of time in the tenant databases, but have to regularly stop what they’re doing and look for paper files. This is where integration with ECM provides immense value.

By integrating the two technologies, staff is not required to learn a new system; they can simply double-click or use a hotkey and retrieve documents that are related to the record they are viewing. With that ease of use, PHAs have a means to move forward despite their heavy workload.

It is an exciting time for PHAs. With support from HUD and empowerment from more technology options than ever, PHAs can move forward with document management – and leave the paper behind. And, most importantly, they save time and money to help them better support those in need of housing assistance.

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Ricky J. Harris

Great post, Terri!

I interned for a Community Development Dept, which has to keep A LOT of records for HUD. One of my tasks was to create a filing checklist for them. Most of the folks would just run to the filing cabinet, take whatever papers they needed, and forget to return them after finished. This happened quite frequently. At the end of my internship, I suggested an electronic database for the records.

Community Development listened and implemented the idea! They now can quickly search and pull up records, nothing’s lost under a pile on someone’s desk, and productivity has gone up, and frustration has gone down.

Terri Jones


Thanks for the comment. Where did you work? I did my internship at the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development and I worked on the CDBG program in Maine and in Arizona.

Terri Jones

I did my internship at the Department of Economic and Community Development in Maine, then I worked there in the CDBG Program amongst other things! Are you still working in Community Development ? BTW, I live in Charlotte now but Greenville is a lovely community!

Al Fullbright

Isn’t it interesting that so many people need so much assistance, but much of the money is being spent on shuffling the paperwork. I work as a community volunteer and I find myself constantly helping people fill out paperwork that they don’t understand. Forms get filled out wrong. Forms get lost. It is pretty common for Social Service agencies to flood applicants with a pile of paperwork – one of which is the ‘Paperwork Reduction Act Page that they always have everyone sign to prove they have read it. I have probably signed fifty of them and have no idea what they are about. It sure increased the amount of paperwork when they passed the paperwork reduction act. Many old people just throw that junk away and always have their records confused.