Paper is NOT Transparent – The Role of Document Management in Open Government
If you can believe it, before computers were used in government, a “paper trail” was considered good government. And for the times, why not? Transactions and government decisions could be reviewed and reconstructed using files for the project, expenditure or decision.
This tradition is so completely entrenched in government that the paper files are now engulfing government. The same tool that used to ensure good decision-making is, instead, draining time from understaffed departments and agencies and by sheer volume, making it impossible to really see what happened.
The issue of transparency is a multi-level problem. From the agency’s perspective, one of the biggest needs is to see where decisions are in the process. In my case, I worked in agencies that awarded grant funds and financing for projects, upwards of 400 projects per year, with many more projects in progress. It was our obligation to watch over the project and the funding and ensure that all laws and regulations were followed. Given that the real progress was demonstrated by documents that were everywhere – in the file, in an email inbox, on a desk and in some cases, missing, there was no ability to get a global view of what was happening in our agency or how projects were progressing. Other activities like employee evaluations, hiring or purchasing were similarly held hostage by their paper indicators.
But the topic of transparency wouldn’t be complete without the most important perspective – the constituent.
Any government that has ever tried to comply with public records requests knows that files are built up over time and nearly impossible to fully provide through a records request. The public has to wait while the request is fulfilled and then they may or may not receive everything they need because of the difficulty of fully accessing or searching paper files. The delay then serves to increase suspicion about whether the entity is truly providing ALL the records.
While today’s budget and staffing climate is challenging, and scrutiny about the how/why/when of government spending is heightened, the paper trail is simply not going to meet the transparency expectations of constituents. And government agencies know it.
It’s why, when they’re looking for enterprise systems like document management, that transparency is more and more often one of their selling points to the decision makers. The people looking for a solution are saying “Check this out – the same document management software that can save us time and money, can also provide access to public records through a website or even a kiosk in the waiting room.”
Now that’s what I call transparent government – and effective use of IT budget!