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Adopting Transparency: Can Government Go Paperless?

A culture change is happening. It’s been happening for a couple of decades now. Data is becoming more accessible through automation. But it’s not easy to make this transition.

Why do people still love paper? It’s such a funny concept. We have all this information online, but many people still love to hold a piece of paper in their hand. It’s almost as if a tangible item is more proof that something exists. Is it a generational thing or something that has to do with working in the public sector? Or something else?

A culture change is happening. It’s been happening for a couple of decades now. Data is becoming more accessible through automation. But it’s not easy to make this transition. Trust is a big component. The public sector has a required need for visibility, so documenting and storing information should questions come up about something that was said or done is very important. How that information is stored and obtained is up to the organization, department, or even individual. This is where approaches differ.

Take labor data for example. There is a need to keep this employee data on hand for years for several reasons — audits, potential lawsuits and budget preparation, just to name a few. Let’s say an audit is taking place and this data needs to be retrieved, there are two scenarios:

    1. Dig in the boxes and file cabinets to find the exact paper timesheet you are looking for, or
    2. Pull up your automated time and attendance system and run a report

Which is more efficient and less likely to result in coming up empty-handed? If you said No. 2 because it’s logical, but deep down you felt it would still make sense to have the paper in hand, you are not alone. Again, there’s something about holding that piece of paper in your hand that makes you feel good. A few years ago, a Forbes article highlighted research on paper and neuroscience. In the article they mention the emotional connection we have with paper. “Physical material is more ‘real’ to the brain. It has a meaning, and a place. It is better connected to memory because it engages with its spatial memory networks.”

Transparency measures are a catalyst for making the leap to online data. The move to make more information available to the public means more automated resources are needed to support it. At Governing’s Summit on Financial Leadership, one municipality talked about how discussions internally can become more fact-based if they use data that is at their fingertips rather than saying “I have to look that up later.” This practice of coming up with information later is becoming less acceptable as people expect organizations to have the information readily available and are often suspect when it is delayed.

In another Forbes article, the author talks about some of the positive ways to look at going paperless. For example, “When you bank online, you aren’t limited by bank hours. You have 24/7 access to your accounts, giving you the freedom to view account balances and pay bills at any time you need.” It doesn’t mean governments need to go completely paperless, but it does make you stop and think that maybe access to data shouldn’t be limited to when someone is in a building and near a printer.

Government is 24/7. Data in real time and on demand is essential to running services efficiently and cost-effectively. Moving to automated processes to reduce paper is not just about the access you have to data and cost savings, it’s also about the people who are wasting time with paper every day. Think about the different ways that employees interact with paper on a regular basis. Think about the amount of administrative work that goes into those interactions. Are your employees spending more time on unproductive paperwork than time doing what matters most?

Going paperless and adopting automation for transparency reasons doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that starts with identifying the biggest areas of waste. Waste of paper and waste of time are often what stands in the way of delivering on the public services needed and having visibility into the data to continue this support.