Assuming all goes to plan, this year Australia's fourth-largest local council will kick the paper habit once and for all. Getting to that point, however, has been less about cold turkey than about gentle weaning, as David Braue explains.
As people all over the world swore off cigarettes and chocolate for the new year, staff at Sutherland Shire Council (SSC) were staring down a completely different kind of resolution: to finally help the council rid itself of paper files.
That desire was the culmination of a decade-long move towards the paperless office that has seen SSC -- which with 215,000 residents and 1,500 staff is the second-largest council in New South Wales and fourth-largest in Australia -- gradually replace its paper filing systems with a document scanning and electronic document management environment.
source:Sutherland Shire Council
FY2004-5: Surplus of AU$20 million on revenues of AU$144.95 million
SSC has already been saving nearly AU$600,000 annually in productivity benefits with 90 percent of staff on the system last year, and the final effort this year will pull the rest of the organisation across the line. That should deliver even more benefits, with additional productivity and savings relieving some of the budgetary pressure and procedural scrutiny that constantly shapes local government IT evolution.
The road away from paper
That evolution began in earnest in 1996, when SSC introduced CRMS (Customer Request Management System), a Lotus Notes-based customer interaction system that helped smooth the handling of customer interactions that were previously managed using paper files.
Two years later, a revised State Records Act spurred thinking about how the council, like its many peers around the country, could reconcile its increasing volume of electronic communications with established paper-based recordkeeping practices. -Increased use of electronic documents was transforming the way records management was provided at the council," says Chris Fripp, corporate records and archives manager with SSC.
-Managing information in hardcopy format meant we had lots of files around the place; they were only usable by one person at a time, and were prone to getting lost. We had to look at systems to be able to maintain not only a hard copy of the information, but also electronic documents -- and it was important to have both [managed] together. We wanted a system that would make peoples' lives easier, and fit in with what they were doing rather than making them fit in with the system."
By 2000, SSC had laid down plans to introduce an automated system for indexing and archiving its electronic information. In an effort to avoid replacing its legacy messaging system, the council worked with systems integrator Cri-Tech Consulting to implement Innovative Ideas Unlimited's Domino Document Manager (DDM).
DDM, which was chosen over other third-party document management products because of its seamless integration with Notes, interacts with the Lotus Notes workflow environment and IBM DB2 back-end database. That database provides a common repository for council information that is also accessible from systems such as its Proclaim One property management and MapInfo geographical information system.
Building a scanning culture
With 47 different business units across its operations, putting the boot into paper files took more than just a passing effort.
One major improvement came from introducing a scanning infrastructure that would facilitate the entry of paper documents into the DDM system. Early on, the decision was made not to retrospectively scan the nearly 600,000 pages contained within SSC's paper files; rather, introduction of scanning would gradually shift the majority of operational files into electronic form as they were used.
Replacement of previous photocopiers with newer models meant employees could easily scan documents into DDM for use, rather than making endless paper copies. This technology provided a bridge between the old and new worlds, allowing employees to begin stocking the document management database using a device with which they were already familiar.
Reinforcing the importance of scanning has increased employee participation significantly over the years. -We're scanning everything now," says Fripp. -It has been a progression over the 10 years, and initially we would say we would only scan this or that type of record -- say, if it was related to a complaint or request. Now, all photocopiers have scanners on them and I think we're just getting better at doing more of it."
As SSC moves to a completely electronic environment this year, recently introduced high-speed scanners are ensuring that incoming mail is scanned as soon as it's opened. An e-mail is then sent to the recipient, who opens it using an embedded link that lets them categorise and view the electronic version of the document.
Since employees interact with document images and only print them occasionally -- for example, when they need some pages for a meeting -- they have very little scanning to do anymore; only printed file notes, memos and the like need to be manually scanned.
Addition of electronic documents to the system has also been automated, with applications set up to automatically save new documents into the right part of the DDM hierarchy. -The user doesn't even have to think about it," says Fripp.
The high volumes of e-mail coming into the council have made it a bit more demanding on employees, who have been directed to keep every piece of relevant information but are given the discretion to weed out personal, spam and other unrelated mail.