Episode 025: Eliminating the Junk from Government Records with Donnita Weeks, City of Bowling Green


With records that stretch back for decades, especially in larger cities, there just comes a point where the space to store it all simply runs out. So what do you do then? Donnita Weeks, senior systems analyst for the City of Bowling Green, Kentucky, is taking us through the steps of her city’s digital decluttering – and how they made it happen for a more effective and efficient government.

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Kate Storey: Welcome to the Paperless Productivity podcast, where we give you the tips, tricks and know how to solve your biggest workflow challenges, and bring great productivity into your workplace every day.

It’s a challenge that nearly everyone faces at some point. What do you do when a physical space becomes filled to the brim with, well, junk? When it happens in our home, we might find new ways of organizing to keep it all contained, or perhaps renting an offsite storage unit to hold it all. But eventually there comes a point where you realize there’s just no physical space left, so some things have got to go. This is true even for professional environments, like government offices, with records that stretch back for decades, especially in larger cities. There just comes a point where the space to store it all simply runs out. So what do you do then?

Here to talk about her office’s experience with this very situation is Donnita Weeks, Senior Systems Analyst, for the City of Bowling Green, Kentucky, who will take us through her city’s realization that the time had come for a digital decluttering, and how they made it happen for a more effective and efficient government.

Welcome to the podcast, Donnita.

Donnita Weeks: Thanks Kate. I’m happy for the opportunity.
Kate: Great. Well, so to start, can you give me a little background on the city of Bowling Green in terms of how many constituents you serve and services that are offered?
Donnita: Sure. Bowling Green is the third largest city in Kentucky. It’s got a population of about 68,000. It’s a rapidly growing city. We’re about one hour north of Nashville, Tennessee, and it’s the home of the Corvette. So it’s the only place in the world where the Corvette is made. And actually Labor Day weekend is when the Corvette Homecoming happens. So this past weekend we had about 7,000 Corvettes come through our city. So pretty exciting. But our city, like most municipalities across the nation, has numerous departments in place to serve our citizens. Most people easily think about the major government departments, like police, fire, human resources, finance. But they may have no idea about all the smaller divisions, like our public information office, our cemetery division, housing assistance, international community’s office, fitness centers, our fleet division, and that we maintain almost over 30 parks in our city, including aquatic centers and several golf courses. So Bowling Green is a great place to live. And part of that is because our city government strives to provide so many different services to our citizens.

Kate: Yeah, that’s a lot of resources and a lot of management overall, when you think about that. So with all that in mind, what were some of the difficulties that the city was starting to run into from a records management perspective, for all of those departments?
Donnita: Yeah. Well, as our city grows, the services that we provide have to expand. And because we utilize those taxpayer dollars, extensive record keeping is necessary. So public sector agencies have to document pretty much everything to ensure that our citizens’ resources are being used as efficiently as possible. So one difficulty was just physical space to store documents. You can only stack paper so high. You can only fit so many filing cabinets in one room. Another major issue was records retention. We didn’t really have a good way to know when specific records could be purged, which also leads to even more of a physical space issue. And another challenge was just simply handling paper documents. If you want a smooth, efficient approval process, passing a piece of paper around multiple buildings is probably not the best solution.
Kate: And with that, digitization, that could really help to speed those kinds of things up. I imagine those are some of the options you have to consider before you can start moving to a more digital system. So when you started talking about this with your team, how did you decide where you were going to start, and what kinds of resources were helpful once you were at the starting point?
Donnita: Our city has always had a document management system in place so that our employees can store and retrieve digital documents. But that’s really all we were using it for, and we still had all of this paper documents that was taking up space. We didn’t really have a system in place for things like forms processing and records retention and process workflows. We just had a lot of paper forms because we’re government and that’s what governments do.
Kate: And we hear a lot from other governments where they talk about there’s like a hybrid system. They might have, like you said, a document management system in place, but they still end up printing out a lot. Or constituents, people will bring in paper and then that has to be stored somewhere. Is that kind of what you guys were dealing with as well?
Donnita: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, just from public safety especially, our law divisions, human resources, every organization deals with it. But when you’re dealing with government it seems even a larger problem than something in the private sector. We have a lot of forms, a lot of paper, everything has to be stored in some form. And so we kind of had a strictly document management system in place, and that needed an upgrade, and we were going to have to dedicate some time and some money into that. So instead of just upgrading what we already had, we thought, “Hey, why not look at what we could have?” We started to look at what technology was available in the market, what issues our employees had that needed to be resolved with the new system, what ways we could improve their day-to-day work. We started just by getting as much information as we can. And, hey, vendors like to sell products. So this is usually the easy part of the process. You can contact many different vendors. They’re very happy to tell you about what they offer and how they could help us move away from so much paper.
Kate: So with all these options that are available to you, as you mentioned, what did you find was that primary consideration when you’re looking at these different options, and what were maybe some of your other government leaders, your other team members, what were they kind of placing as a high priority for different systems?
Donnita: It kind of depends on the experiences. As I’ve talked with other government leaders, it really depends on the experience of that organization. There’s always a few consistent items that pop up. Government’s always kind of been laughed at for being behind the times, always a few decades behind the private sector. Unfortunately that joke’s pretty accurate. Most government leaders that I’ve talked to are just at the start of digital documents, and that’s kind of where we were as well.

The primary concern is just how to save a document, how to open that document back up, how to make sure that it’s there, how to kind of meet the basic needs. I think that’s where a lot of government agencies find themselves stuck at and not really knowing where to go from there.

Kate: Now what about workflow and case management. Were those things that were on their radar maybe, that they started to think about, or if not, why didn’t you think that was something they were starting to consider?
Donnita: Since public sector is not generally a for-profit entity and there’s usually major budget constraints that limit how advanced government can be. So sometimes they’re trying to meet the basic needs instead of looking at more advanced functionality like workflow and case management. And it can be difficult for government leaders to make a large initial investment in a solution, even if they know that it can be beneficial long-term. And also when you’re trying to do more with less, like everybody, it’s hard to devote resources to a process that is working. There may be a process in place that is slow, it may require some manual work, but it functions. If you have something that functions, it’s kind of hard to reassess that process from scratch and think about how you could automate this task, or how you can make it more efficient. So most governments are not getting into workflow and case management technology just yet. They’re handling this in a much more manual fashion.
Kate: Okay. That makes a lot of sense. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But knowing that you have to do more with less, as you’ve said, and as we’ve heard from a lot of other government leaders as well through some different episodes, the demands and the expectations of constituents is really changing a lot, and they really expect that more digital process and that faster turnaround time that digitization will often bring. So I can imagine those are all things that you guys had to consider.
Donnita: Absolutely. That was definitely part of the process for us. But I just kind of know where a lot of government agencies start at, and that’s kind of one thing that I wanted to bring up, is we all seem to be kind of stuck at one level and wanting to take that next step, which is kind of how we were lead to OnBase.
Kate: So once you decided that OnBase was going to be the best solution to meet the city’s needs, what did that implementation look like? Did you find it was overall pretty smooth, or were there some challenges that you guys were facing along the way?
Donnita: There was definitely some challenges. The first issue was just simply the size of our implementation. If we were only dealing with one specific process or one form or one department, it would be pretty manageable. But we had the lofty goal of rolling out OnBase to our entire city, across all departments. We essentially started with the plan. It had two phases. The first phase was to simply replace our existing document management system. This meant converting all of our documents into OnBase to make sure that everyone had a place to store and retrieve their documents. Just kind of getting back to where we already were. The second phase was then to provide that additional functionality. This is what the users wanted, to start to build electronic forms, start to automate some of our existing processes with workflow, set up that records retention on those documents, and provide a more flexible and mobile document solution.

And the first phase was very challenging because our users were very resistant. They already had a working solution, and once again they felt there was no need for change, and some of that flexibility that they had with their own miscellaneous documents in the old system was not there in OnBase, because we had a much more structured design.

And we’ve struggled kind of to get through that first phase to move into the second phase where end users can really start to see the benefit. Second phase is where they’re now seeing the benefits of that digitalization and that automation.

And even another aspect of this is just the struggle to get everyone through training. We had the massive task of attempting to get about 650 people to use the system, and use it correctly. So I wouldn’t say it was smooth. I don’t think anyone has ever said that about software implementation. But overall it was very successful implementation and we stayed on time and on budget.

Kate: That’s excellent. And there’s always those factors that will come up. But yeah, it seems to me that a lot of times it has more to do with the adoption, rather than the actual technical aspect sometimes of that. Like you said, just kind of changing those status quos, the changes of behavior and habits of people in the department, sometimes is just as difficult as any hiccups you might come across with actually implementing the software.
Donnita: Absolutely.
Kate: Well let’s get into the junk part of this process. So what was it like once you began eliminating some of those physical items? You started taking back some of those storage rooms. Did you start seeing the benefits of this fairly quickly?
Donnita: Well, when we start to look at the records of each department in the city, it’s kind of overwhelming. So every division has their own forms, their own processes, their own storage. We’ve recently created a records division and central location for all of our permanent physical records that we still have to deal with, that have to be in paper form, and having that central location in place to organize and store those records has been beneficial.

Our HR department was actually one of the first departments to jump on board of getting rid of paper and kind of moving into that digital world. Some of this had to do with a change in leadership in that department, which is always a good time to change processes, when you have a change in leadership. They’re currently in the process of back scanning dozens of cabinets of personnel files, workers’ comp files, benefit-related documents. And we’re organizing these into OnBase filing cabinets so that not only the HR department can benefit from easy access to these files, but that the individual employees and the supervisors will have access to these personnel files.

We’ve also started eliminating files within our accounts payable and our payroll departments. Everybody knows, if you’ve ever dealt with a check run, then you know how much backup documentation is needed for each check run. So we’ve started to do, each check run is just digital documents in OnBase. And so we’ve started to kind of have numerous physical filing cabinets that we no longer need. And our auditors, the staff members, can quickly access what they need in OnBase. So over the next few years we should have a lot of filing cabinets for sale, if anybody’s looking to buy some.

Kate: Priced to sell, right. That’s awesome.

Anything else that you wanted to share about what the future holds? I know you talked about some of the different projects that are coming up. Anything else that we can look forward to hearing about from you in the future?

Donnita: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve got staff working through lots of kind of common forms and workflow approval processes that a lot of different organizations would deal with. Some of them we’re working on right now include just the request to fill a position, a request for like comp time payouts, system access form, some common things like that. We have already implemented a solution that allows our public works engineers to take an iPad out onto a construction site, fill out all the needed forms, capture the needed photos, and all of that be stored automatically into OnBase. And this was a daily manual process that took quite a bit of time previously, but being able to handle that, all of this out in the field, has really allowed our staff to be much more efficient.

I’m currently working on fully digitizing our performance evaluation process. All of our full-time staff have to have an annual evaluation, which is 100% paper at moment, and we plan to be 100% digital for the next evaluation process.

Kate: That’s great.
Donnita: We also have plans to implement a parking ticket solution. At the moment this process is kind of complex. It crosses numerous departments, takes an extreme amount of time to process one parking ticket. We have plans to allow a police officer to utilize the mobile client, print a ticket from their vehicle, a notification be sent back to police to retrieve the owner information of that, and that be immediately sent to our treasury division for the billing process. That takes weeks now and that’s going to cut that process down quite a bit. I guess at the moment the best way to describe it is that we have more work than we can accomplish, which is actually a wonderful thing. Having endless opportunities is much better than being at the end of your options.
Kate: I agree.

So if you were able to offer advice to other city governments who are considering eliminating paper, other than maybe get their eBay page up now for their filing cabinets, what advice would you give them? What do you wish you had known at the beginning of this process that you know now?

Donnita: I would first make sure that you spend the time informing staff members about the project before it kicks off, so that they feel more comfortable with the change, that they feel part of that process. It’s very important to keep end users aware of the end goal. I think it’s sometimes very easy to become frustrated with the work and the additional time that they’re spending upfront, unless they truly understand the end goal and how much this will benefit them in the end.

It’s also important to take the time to select the right solution. Every organization’s different, and selecting the right solution is very important, and making sure that they have a great implementation partner of that solution. I cannot imagine going through this without a great project management team from ImageSoft.

I can’t really think of any negatives to getting rid of paper. It’s been very beneficial so far, and our users are loving it. It does take a lot of time and we still have a long way to go, but I would offer the following advice to other city governments that’s considering eliminating paper. The sooner you start the process, the less paper you have to deal with.

Kate: That’s very true. It’s good advice.
Donnita: It only grows every day. So your problem’s only getting bigger.
Kate: Exactly. Thanks again for sharing all of this with our listeners, Donnita. Appreciate it.
Donnita: Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed it. Hopefully been able to provide some information that might help other agencies out there that’s going through the same thing, or might be thinking about how to move, at least a little bit closer, to a paperless environment.
Kate: Absolutely. Thank you again.

And thank you everyone for joining us today. And if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to the Paperless Productivity podcast, where we tackle some of the biggest paper-based pain points facing organizations today. We’ll see you next time.

Thanks again for joining us today for this episode of Paperless Productivity. This podcast is sponsored by ImageSoft, the paperless process people, which you can learn more about at imagesoftinc.com. That’s imagesoftinc.com. Join us next time where you’ll learn how to harness the power of technology, supercharge efficiency, and accomplish your organization’s goals.

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