Will we ever see a paper-free public sector?

Bob Larrivee, chief analyst at AIIM, looks at the paper-free progress made by the public sector as organisations migrate to a more digital workplace

Few people would dispute that a paper-free workplace is a hugely attractive proposition. It’s a much-discussed topic and many government departments, including the NHS and Ministry of Justice, now have targets set for going paperless.

Sustainability charity WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) has released data that reveals how the average office worker uses up to 45 sheets of paper per day. More than half of this is considered waste. So there are obvious benefits to the environment that come with using significantly less paper.

But for many in the public sector, environmental issues are not a primary concern. What interests them is doing things quicker, smarter and more efficiently. This means both in terms of delivery of services to citizens, and also within the back-office and administration functions in public sector bodies. How far along are public sector organisations with paper-free, is going totally paper-free a realistic goal and how can it be achieved?

Digital service delivery
We live in the era of the connected consumer. People are used to doing almost everything online, from shopping and banking, to booking a doctor’s appointment and submitting tax returns. The latter two would fall under the category of digital service delivery, where citizens use digital or online to engage and interact with different areas of the public sector.

Each year AIIM conducts research into the paper-free workplace with both private and public sector organisations and 2016’s findings make for promising reading. The top benefit identified from going paper-free was faster customer or citizen response times. In today’s customer-focused environment, responding to customers or citizens is a growing priority for many organisations, and higher productivity is important to every organisation.

The back-office
But it’s the back-office processes that I’d really like to focus on in terms of reducing use of paper. The past few years have seen a major increase in content, data and information in the public sector. This helps improve service delivery and in theory, makes for a more open form of government. Some of this content is in physical form, but much of it comes digitally, which is helping drive the move towards paper-free processes in the public sector.

This is borne out in the findings from our recent research, Paper-Free in 2016, Are we there yet?, significant progress has been made in the on-going move towards going paper-free. People want to go paper-free - around two-thirds of business executives revealed that the demand for paperless processes is on the rise – and there is less paper around. The amount of paper arriving at the door is decreasing for half of organisations (somewhat for 41 per cent and rapidly for nine per cent), while digital inbound documents are increasing for two-thirds of respondents.

Paper use in certain functions in the public sector has shown strong signs of reduction. Paper use in human resources (HR) is particularly decreasing in the areas of recruitment and employee lifecycle, and paper use is also decreasing for 41 per cent of people in accounts payables (AP) and 39 per cent in accounts receivables.

This is all enormously positive, but there is still much progress to be made. Most in the public sector are still not taking advantage of managing digitally born/created information entirely in digital form.

The comfort factor
The truth of the matter is that for many people, paper still just ‘feels’ right. A good example of this can be found in the review and approval of documents. 65 per cent say they are still signing contracts, orders, booking forms, and more on paper. While more than half of respondents in our research do scan documents, this is mostly just for archiving purposes.

So why exactly does paper still exist in so parts of the public sector? People like to have paper to read, take notes, and even share. There is a lack of comfort in the digital forms, and while this could be generational, it is just as likely to be cultural in relation to the organisation itself. Leadership must take the leading role in moving their department forward. There should be a clear vision as to why paper-free is beneficial, and the options available from capture to disposal.

Capture is one of the most important elements as it brings the information into the information ecosystem, placing under proper control, making it accessible and available for action. So it seems this would be a prime focal point for many organisations, yet when we asked about capture, only 10 per cent of respondents indicate they capture to process and use adaptive and intelligent process workflows.

Going paper-free in 2017
When trying to go paper-free in a public sector department, it is important to remember that taking the first step is better than taking no step at all. Anyone unsure of where or how to begin should seek professional assistance and/or training to help them set off on the right path. This includes looking to current suppliers and service providers for guidance, as well as seeking industry advice to teach best practices.

But capture should be the starting point for anyone embarking on going paper-free, whether it is digitising paper using scanners, or capturing digitally created information immediately and maintaining it in digital form. The first step to managing and ingesting information into the information ecosystem, business processes, and taking action on it sooner.

Mobile capture, and the use of cloud enhance this capability by enabling the remote workforce to engage anytime, from any location, and maintain a level of engagement that mimics those workers who are local and resident within the corporate walls. This extension, resulting from being paper-free, takes operational efficiency, productivity, and responsiveness to a new level.

Other important factors to consider are change management and executive level support. The fact that our research consistently highlights a lack of management initiatives for going paper-free, would suggest that board members must get behind going paper-free, sooner rather than later. Without that support, it will always be an uphill battle.

It remains unrealistic to think that all processes in the public sector will be paper-free in the near future, but there are definitely certain processes where paper can be removed. The end is in sight when it comes to going paper-free, but it remains a tiny pinprick in the distance for now.

Bob Larrivee is Vice President and Chief Analyst of Market Intelligence at AIIM, and an internationally recognised expert and thought leader in the fields of information and process management.

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