Transitioning away from paper documents will not only help local governments during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, when resources and staff may be reduced, but will also make services more accessible in the future.
Many of our country’s local government buildings and services are now closed to the public. Some have shut down entirely. Unfortunately, many are finding that they are not equipped to serve their constituents during this time.
The private sector has long recognized that digital initiatives are critical to survival. Eighty-nine percent of all companies have already adopted a digital-first business strategy or plan to do so, and 55 percent of companies without a digital transformation believe they have less than a year before they start to lose market share. These efforts pay off: A study by Adobe found that companies that prioritize digital initiatives are 64 percent more likely than their peers to achieve their business goals.
Business continuity plans are just as vital to the public sector as they are to the private sector. Today, it’s a pandemic; tomorrow, it might be a hurricane or a fire. At the center of these continuity plans is a digital strategy. Unfortunately, however, many local and state governments lag behind the private sector in digitization.
I have been working with governments for over 25 years to formulate these digital strategies, and I’ve seen that the ones that have adopted significant digital initiatives have found the current crisis much more navigable than those that haven’t. For example, homeowners in counties that have digitized and who are looking to take advantage of low refinance rates are able to access the deed to their property from home.
But this isn’t just a matter of convenience or improving a utility, and it’s not just a matter of making a crisis more manageable. Governments that are behind in these endeavors should be thinking now about how they can continue to offer residents essential services remotely or with reduced staffing for future crises. This means employing a system to provide constituents with low-cost digital access to documents, replacing trips to government offices to find paper documents. These initiatives protect vital records and boost the efficiency of the government workforce. They bring in revenue, as a government can charge a fee to access these records without the workforce costs to physically find the record.
Local governments have reams of paper records that span decades or even centuries past — everything from land records and court records to birth certificates and maps. These physical documents are difficult to search and expensive to store. It can often take days to track down a physical file.
When physical documents are digitized and a records management system is put in place, information gathering becomes much simpler. Judges, attorneys and law enforcement officials can log into the system, run a search and download digitized copies of the records they need. Citizens can find required documents online or on their phone in a matter of seconds, and they can be alerted about potential fraud activity involving their records.
Once files are scanned into a digital format — typically starting with present-day files and moving backward in time — they can be searched, managed and instantly retrieved when using a records management, court or jury system. The end result is a faster, more efficient and mobile-friendly process for both government staff and the public.
Cloud-hosted storage solutions are often the best choice. They’re flexible and mobile-friendly, they’re inexpensive, and they’re easy to scale; computing and storage capacity usually can be added for a fraction of the cost of purchasing new physical servers and deploying them onsite.
Local and state officials who digitize also provide an invaluable historical service that will benefit their constituents’ descendants far into the future. Plymouth, Mass., for example, has indexed more than 1 million documents and land records, beginning from 1620, including a document drafted on the Mayflower. They have also transcribed original handwritten documents from the Plymouth Registry, all written in 17th-century cursive. The preservation of these documents for future generations is vital to the preservation of the American historical legacy.
It is best to start the digitization process by scanning every incoming document from the present forward, and then, based on available funds, work backward in time to scan files in 10- to 20-year increments.
In today’s digital world, we are fortunate to have the technology to protect our country’s records and make them quickly accessible to those who need them. Local governments of the future will serve their constituents through simple, streamlined and user-friendly tools, eliminating the public stigma of red tape and making the experience for both sides easier and more pleasant.
Ann Kirkbride is the Senior Business Unit Owner for digital processing services with Avenu.
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