Can the public sector ever go paper-free?

Many offices and places of work are clogged up with too much paper. The advent of the internet was supposed to herald the dawn of a paper‑free world, which blatantly hasn’t happened. Nowhere is this truer than in the public sector, where there remains an over‑reliance on paper in many operational areas.
Yet the idea of a paper-free workplace is an attractive one. Those that work in the public sector are aware how paper can clog things up and that removing it in some areas could improve response times to citizens, workplace productivity and of course, help improve the environment. This was demonstrated in a recent AIIM study, ‘Paper Wars 2014 – an update from the battlefield’. Of those that have introduced paper-free projects, 60 per cent of respondents have seen ROI within 12 months, and more than three-quarters had done so within 18 months.
Furthermore, 68 per cent of respondents said that business-at-the-speed-of-paper will be ‘unacceptable in just a few years’ time’ and around half of organisations surveyed claimed that the biggest single productivity improvement would be to remove paper. However, only one in five has a board-level endorsed policy to actually reduce paper and more than one in five organisations (21 per cent) are actually increasing their paper consumption. But is it realistic to think that public sector departments can ever go completely paper-free? Probably not, perhaps we should all be looking at paper-free processes instead and how technology can make that possible.
Paper-free workplaces – an impossible dream
For a community of information professionals such as AIIM, admitting that we will almost certainly never be paper-free is hard to accept. But it is true – the recent AIIM research showed more than half of respondents still print personal paper copies to take to a meeting, or to add a signature. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of public sector meetings where long agendas and background materials are printed for attendees, with a majority of them simply binned (unread) after the meeting.
Our research also highlighted that people still use printed copies for reading offline or out-of-the-office (50 per cent), and particularly to review and mark-up (45 per cent). Despite a number of ministerial mandates to reach paper-free targets, the public sector are as likely to cite a lack of management initiatives (47 per cent) as the major reason there is still so much paper in their business processes, along with the (perceived) need for physical signatures (44 per cent) and a general lack of understanding of the paper-free options.
The need for physical signatures is an interesting area. There are many different electronic signing solutions available ranging from stylus input, automated verification, digitally encrypted signatures, and web signatures, all of which have a place in achieving paper-free working. Stopping an otherwise all-electronic process simply to collect a physical signature on a piece of paper, which is often immediately re‑scanned, is obviously somewhat sub-optimal and frequently presents a greater confidentiality risk than the electronic original itself.
World Paper Free Day 2014, which took place on 6 November, is an initiative that sought to show how much paper is wasted in the workplace and how well we can manage without it. Hundreds of organisations all over the world – including government departments in the US and UK – participated in going paper-free for the day. One of the key takeaways was that paper-free business processes are a much more realistic goal than going completely paper-free. There are other technologies beyond electronic signing solutions that can play a role in this.

Point-of-entry scanning
The concept of scanning all inbound mail at point-of-entry and routing it around the office electronically is very attractive, especially if it can significantly reduce or even eliminate internal mail distribution. Our research asked those who consider they have a digital mailroom scenario, what proportion of mail they scan (not including brochures, junk mail, etc.). 45 per cent are scanning half or more of incoming mail, and 34 per cent are scanning three‑quarters. Significantly, almost a quarter (23 per cent) are scanning 90 per cent or even 100 per cent.

The concept of a digital mailroom does not rely on the use of large central mailroom scanners. Mail capture can be distributed across regional offices, and can be readily outsourced, so lends itself well to government. Although the investment in scanners and capture servers for scan‑on-entry systems is not insignificant, most respondents saw a strong ROI, with 38 per cent reporting payback in 12 months or less, and 60 per cent within 18 months.

Going mobile
As the camera capabilities of mobile devices have improved, the concept of using them as a portable scanning device has taken off. In addition, tablets provide a new way to access electronic forms, creating what we might call a digital clipboard. Indeed, some of the applications are quickly becoming ubiquitous in the public sector – holding social care notes on a tablet, scanning receipts for expense claims, uploading content to back-end systems via a mobile. Capturing signatures with stylus‑tablets has been in use by delivery firms for many years, but there is now an opportunity to extend that to many other areas, or simply to photograph the form, with its signature.
The overriding benefit of mobile capture is speed of data availability: the process can start sooner and responses will be faster. This can also free up time for public sector workers to spend on other more important areas, helping with the out-going demands on the public sector to do more, with less.

The cloud and data capture
We have seen steady movement in both the use of cloud, and the general willingness to use cloud across the whole ECM spectrum in the past three years. The public sector has been a prominent user of such cloud technologies. Capture is an interesting application for cloud or particularly SaaS in that data requirements are high, but the recognition technology involved benefits from large, dedicated servers and sophisticated software.

Our research revealed that the number of current users of Cloud or SaaS capture applications is around 11 per cent, but those with plans to deploy a cloud solution within the next 18 months will still nearly double that figure to one-in-five, rising to one-in four within three years.
These technologies are all going to be critical as we continue the paper wars. Progress has undoubtedly been made and recalibrating the main goal – from the totally paper-free workforce to the more realistic paper-free business processes – will help even further. The public sector can benefit from this as much, or even more than business.

On-going budget restraints mean efficiency improvements are never far from the agenda and reducing paper‑free has been shown to help in this area.
Our survey showed that business‑at‑the‑speed-of-paper is fast becoming unacceptable. It will be a long journey adopting paper-free business processes, but the benefits are clear in terms of improving services to citizens response times and overall productivity. The sooner you get started, the faster you will see the returns.
AIIM president, John Mancini, said: “Reducing paper use has a tangible impact on business, from improved customer service to increased productivity. Business‑at‑the‑speed‑of-paper simply isn’t compatible with the modern digital enterprise and while we can’t eliminate paper altogether, we can all be much smarter about using less.”
Mancini continued: “The paperless office will probably never arrive but achieving paper-free processes is a realistic goal for any business. There are many ways to capture, manage and store information digitally.”

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