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Strategies for Better Government Document Management

April 22, 2020
Susanna Pho, CFM

Government agencies across the country handle millions of documents per day – relying on forms, minutes, notes, and permits to track transactions, meetings, projects, and regulations. Historically, this meant A LOT of paperwork. So much so that, in 1980, the Paperwork Reduction Act was passed to limit the paperwork burden of government on citizens and businesses. Since then, many local governments have increasingly turned to developing digital workflows and document management systems to limit the amount of paper passing through.

Even so, while digitization helps with some problems (like minimizing the risk that your files become rendered useless in a flood), it doesn't totally address the data management hurdles that governments still face each day. Whether information is housed in a cabinet or in a server, we've found that governments still have a few common pain points when it comes to managing documentation including:

Awkward transitions. Paper persists in many local governments for a variety of reasons: some residents are more comfortable with filling out forms with pens or some departments might have more digital resources than others. Digital equity and access to the internet is also a huge ongoing national concern. Even for governments with advanced digital workflows, there's still the pesky problem of history. Decades of historical paper documentation has left all governments with information and data stored in a whole slew of formats and places.

Documentation doesn't always stay in one place. If documents intersect with multiple departments or levels of government, they tend to travel around. This can quickly lead to duplicate documentation and spotty version tracking. In situations where one department is reliant on another to collect, keep, and pull up records, contradictory management systems between departments can get tricky.

Changes in staffing. Local and regional governments have relatively high turnover rates. When departmental staffing changes, maintaining document management continuity can be a challenge. You might develop a great way to store and organize files, but if you don't develop ways to communicate methodology this work can quickly get lost in a turnover.  ****

There's just a lot. At the end of the day, the sheer quantity of documentation flowing through government can be the biggest barrier to effective management. For governments using permit management systems, even custom products don't always fit every need of every department. We've found that many of our partners jury rig software to make it work for their use cases.

There isn't a catchall fix for these problems, as many of them are complex and institutional, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for optimization. Better document management strategies can help you service residents more effectively, make the most out of staffing, and save money. For data-driven governments interested in leveraging data from documents for decision-making and planning, thinking through your document management plan can have a huge effect on future projects. Here are some tips for setting yourself, and your community, up for success:

Don't manage documents in a silo. As you're designing your document management strategy, remember to think about who you share documentation with. This can be another department, another political jurisdiction, or another level of government. Get buy-in and feedback from these entities to make sure that your systems make sense when contextualized in the pantheon of other systems in play.

Diversify document request channels. An ongoing challenge in government document management is the need to liaise with and provide timely information to residents. If your documents are frequently requested by your community, make sure that they're easily accessible. Consider putting them online. Make sure that residents have multiple ways to contact you for requests, and invest in low-touch options (like web forms). If you have to receive a call and look up a document each time a need arises, this will take crucial time away from your other responsibilities.

Plan for future uses. Consider the data format(s) that will be most useful to you. Many of our partners want to conduct analysis on their documents to understand larger trends in planning, identify underlying needs, and locate blind spots. If this is you, connect your data needs with your document management system(s). Can you transcribe key data so that you have it in a structured format later? Do you know of a specific permit form that might contain crucial data? If you do, make sure that it gets stored appropriately for easy access later.

Document your documentation. Workflow documentation can be a deep pool to jump into, but even a quick pass at documenting your processes can make a bit impact. Keep track of how you name files, where you put them, and who has access. If you are transcribing data from PDF and JPG scans of forms, a key stumbling block can be the specificity of transcription instructions. Remember to be clear about how you want fields populated. For example, if your team is entering data for construction type, are "wood", "wood-framed", and "framed with wood" all acceptable responses? Will differences in responses make it harder to analyze data later?

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