The Paperless Office: Improving Service and Morale
John Montenero is chief procurement officer for the City of Palo Alto and can be reached at John.Montenero@CityofPaloAlto.org.
Public agencies nationwide struggle to do more with fewer staff resources. The City of Palo Alto’s Purchasing and Contract Administration division grappled with that challenge for years. Vendors and the division’s city department “customers” had grown increasingly frustrated by the inefficiencies of public purchasing. The purchasing office took weeks and sometimes months to deliver basic procurement services. The division lacked strategic procurement practices to help boost savings, accountability and efficiency.
A New Approach to a Perennial Challenge
Historically, the division responded to deficient output by committing more staffing resources. But adding staff was no longer feasible due to increasing budgetary constraints and the lingering impact of an economic recession. Outsourcing and contracting for services present risks that are inherently difficult to sustain and manage. Technology that kept the purchasing office heavily dependent on paper further complicated its fiscal challenges.
Palo Alto had adopted a “cloud-first digital city” approach in its smart city framework. This presented an ideal opportunity to embrace technology-based innovation as a way of improving the Purchasing and Contract Administration division’s operational effectiveness. Multiple circumstances appeared ripe for technological change. Numerous rows and corralled areas of filing cabinets and office equipment crowded the division’s office space. The time spent processing requests in a paper-based system had a domino effect throughout the organization. Whenever more time was required to track down paper file records or replace or recreate missing documents, it delayed the purchasing group’s deliverables to city departments. The daunting process of retrieving paper records diminished staff morale.
The move to transition from paper to electronic processes is never easy, particularly when government systems have accumulated mountains of paper records. Digitizing the way public agencies serve their communities requires employees to rethink current processes.
Over the past decade, many public agencies have shifted incrementally to cloud-based systems. Such transitions typically augment existing paper-based office operations rather than fully replacing them, principally because a paperless initiative may at first appear overwhelming and trigger concerns about data integrity, data security and recovery, the user-friendliness of systems, learning curves and the challenges commonly associated with change.
Implementing Change Incrementally
To effect a successful transition, the division needed to achieve team buy-in, formulate a strategy, gain executive support and identify momentum-building quick wins. The division launched a series of strategy sessions to support the team’s innovative thinking and goals, which included consistently delivering quality service and fostering a culture of constant improvement. With assistance from the city’s Information Technology Department, the division conducted a cloud-readiness analysis to gather facts and identify potential efficiencies to be gained by adopting appropriate technology. A time-and-motion study revealed that document management tasks supporting paper-based office operations consumed an astonishing 30 percent of the team’s work day. Recovering much of that time would offer an invaluable asset to staff already stressed by doing more with less. The team concluded that going paperless with their operations was the best and most logical choice.
Next, the team engaged in a remapping effort, creating flow charts of the division’s business processes, and implemented changes incrementally to move operations toward a printless and eventually paperless office environment.
Automating Workflow and Clerical Tasks
The first phase involved procuring Software as a Service (SaaS) platforms to establish the infrastructure for going paperless. After these were in place, the division adopted:
- A managed print services (MPS) platform designed as a cost-per-copy business model that encouraged printless practices;
- A cloud-based electronic document management system (EDMS) platform with optical character recognition and document workflow capabilities, which was integrated with the MPS platform; and
- A document imaging program to scan and archive existing paper records into the EDMS.
The team developed an automated filing system within the EDMS where staff could drag and drop electronic records into a desktop drop box for the EDMS to accept and file according to the conventions and rules staff had devised. The optical character recognition capability facilitates fast retrieval of records, and the EDMS workflow capability enables the automation of group collaboration and approval routing.
This first phase of change management provided the foundation for exploring additional technologies that supported the paperless office. The second phase added other relevant SaaS platforms, such as e-procurement, e-analytics, e-compliance management and e-signature, that further transitioned office processes from paper to electronic workflows. The team integrated as many of the SaaS platforms as possible by utilizing application program interfaces. This helped facilitate automation of clerical and administrative tasks.
Automating office workflows made it possible to allocate additional staff time to performing more strategic services and consulting with city department customers on improvements in areas like vendor performance, risk mitigation, regulatory compliance and enhanced savings strategies.
With momentum building, the team introduced the city’s Civic e-Shopping Mall, which is a directory-driven portal to cooperative agency purchasing. The procurement division also developed and instituted an intranet-based, self-paced learning center with how-to references and courses where city department customers can quickly access information and training. These tools also help city departments keep better pace with project timelines.
Paperless Operations Create Numerous Benefits
Making the move to becoming an entirely paperless office operating in the cloud proved invaluable. Its immediate benefits include:
- Redirecting reclaimed time toward achieving the division’s strategic goals;
- Improving the office environment and employee morale by reclaiming office space and eliminating clutter;
- Increasing collaboration with “open-space huddles” that promote problem-solving and sharing ideas;
- Significantly reducing office supply costs, thus increasing budget efficiencies;
- Improving response time to customer requests; and
- Reducing error rates and improving control points.
The purchasing office operates more effectively with remote access to the cloud. Now staff can access records and systems when meeting with city department customers and address business concerns in real time.
Technology and innovation offer enormous potential for improving the ease and effectiveness of governance. Government agencies at all levels can use technology to simplify interactions with residents and businesses and improve the delivery of essential community services. The City of Palo Alto’s experience provides an example of how a cloud-first digital city approach can boost efficiency, savings, control, compliance and morale.
Tips on What to Keep in Mind When Considering a Paperless Office
What were the principal challenges of implementing the paperless system in Palo Alto?
- Developing a budget to scan paper records into electronic format; and
- Planning the approach for initiating and driving cultural transition towards rethinking the business processes in the electronic or digital format, including revision of code, policy and procedures.
What tips would you offer other cities considering a similar effort?
Because the cloud-based electronic document management system (EDMS), managed print services (MPS) platform and e-Procurement, etc., benefit the entire organization, it’s helpful to budget the cost from a IT-based shared technology fund where all departments of the organization pay into it to share the cost of shared technology-based services. When sourcing for these services, first strategize and plan the infrastructure of the paperless organization so you can source through one Request for Proposals (RFP) effort. The RFP should be structured to allow for possible multiple awards. Look at cooperatives as another sourced means to adopt these services.
Photo credits: Courtesy of the City of Palo Alto (desk photos)