County Clerks and Public Records Requests: A Happier Ever-After

By: Katie Pusz, Copywriter, ImageSoft

Can we all take a moment to celebrate the county clerks who, at this very moment, are working to keep our local governments running? Just a month ago, Winter Haven, FL blocked out an entire week to applaud municipal clerks. From May 6-12, county clerks were showered with gratitude for the value that their work brings to the Winter Haven community every day. And rightfully so!

Like the thread that holds a king-sized quilt together, one of the most important roles of a county clerk is to ensure that elected officials stay in open and clear communication with the public they serve, typically by means of public records request. In this way, clerks serve as the gatekeepers of a county’s checks and balances.

As the efficiency and success of counties hinges on the quality and capacity of its clerks, it is critically important that they stay well-equipped with the most updated tools for processing information requests and maintaining open communication with the public.

To FOIA This, You Need to Forget That!

155_paperworkmountain.jpgTraditionally, a clerk’s office space is shadowed by mountains of paper files and records that they typically sift through for days just to process one records request. Even then, they may have to redact sensitive information, which includes making a copy of the original document, inking out sensitive information, and making another copy to send to the requester. If the documents need to be snail-mailed, that will take even longer to be received and will acquire postage expenses. Not to mention that FOIA requests are bound by time restraints, and clerks need to not only manage and prioritize the timestamps on their requests, but adhere to them.

In a world where information is being requested at record speeds, clerks could never acquire the capacity or space necessary to maintain offices that are both efficient and manually-operated. On the flipside, many counties don’t have the budget to keep hiring more people, buying or renting more space, replenishing paper and ink, or footing more postal fees.

In a nutshell, paper is out. So, what’s moving in?

ECM, You’re Up!

Enterprise content management systems (ECM) are taking counties and clerks by storm, swooping up every document and file and condensing it all into one, comprehensive digital world. Also called electronic document management systems (EDMS), these electronic document and file repositories leverage automation and digital functionality to turnaround FOIA requests and their many other callings in optimal time.

Why are ECMs trending as the preferred tool for managing FOIA requests? We can think of a few reasons:

  • Tracking in No Time: As we previously mentioned, clerks work within several time boundaries on any given day. Able to integrate with electronic workflows, ECM/EDMS will recognize electronic requests, track their progress, and electronically deliver the results.
  • Point-and-Click Redactions: With an ECM like OnBase, redacting sensitive information is as easy as point and click. Best yet, this feature also allows you to create a separate, redacted copy for the recipient while the original copy is maintained on file.
  • Audits, Access, and Answers: Have you and another clerk, official, or staff member ever simultaneously needed the same document? Fighting over paper is not only time consuming, but it diminishes the integrity of the document – it could be on anyone’s desk at any time, and very vulnerable to wandering eyes. With an ECM/EDMS, a file or document can be viewed by multiple parties at the same time. And since you’re accessing documents electronically, you are free to work remotely from anyplace with secure internet access. Complete audits of a document’s history also hold users accountable, so you can see who has viewed or edited a document, how, and when.
  • eNotifications = No worries: Electronic notifications keep clerks on track with looming deadlines and what they should be prioritizing. Especially valuable to time-sensitive FOIA requests, the notifications reduce stress for the clerk by ensuring that everyone has what they need exactly when they need it.

As The Paperless Process People, we’re all about efficiency. If you’re ready to un-shadow your office in time for summer and learn more about the easy adoption of an ECM/EDMS, feel free to ping us.

What part of handling record requests is the most problematic for you? What’s the one thing you with your current document management system could do to help?

 

6 Ways ECM Can Help Government Overcome Challenges – Part 5

By: Kevin Ledgister, Marketing Manager, ImageSoft

Comply and Fly with ECM: Meeting Mandates and Regulations

153_waitinginline260 minutes. That’s just over 4 hours, which is about half of the average person’s workday. It’s also the amount of time government agencies spend per day just trying to meet public records requests.

When I say this, you may envision stacks and stacks of backlogged requests and impatient constituents lined up. This is true to some extent, but it’s really only half the battle. Not only are these agencies dealing with backlogs and back-talk, but they’re doing so while sweating under the urgency of mandates and regulations. Unfortunately for agency workers, such bold parameters box in almost all of their requests.

How Do They Manage?

Historically, not very well. Constituents with a request need to search the government’s website for the form, fill it out, print the document, and snail-mail it in. The paper document then needs to be hand-shuffled to the right desk, filed, and processed. All this alongside the hundreds of other documents that need the same, vital attention. Sounds fun, right?

Or, if the constituent needs it faster, they drive to your office, fighting traffic, securing close parking, finally get through security and wait in line for the pleasure of submitting the request in-person.

Someone Help These People!

Enterprise content management (ECM) is on it! Using its cloud-based storage, ECM allows public records across all departments to elevate their capacity and ability to comply with the ever-changing public records requirements without cramping their offices with added file cabinets.

Using an ECM system for public records becomes even easier when it manages your processes. For instance, you have dozens, if not hundreds of PDF forms on your website. Many of those are mandated forms that you cannot modify, which makes it hard (if not impossible) for electronic submission.

But an ECM solution, like OnBase by Hyland, comes with Unity Forms which allow you to design documents that will capture signatures, allow attachments and validate data to ensure that you’re collecting all the required information. Then, with the click of a button, the data is merged onto a government form that can be submitted online or printed and mailed. This not only ensures that all required information is filled out, but the constituent doesn’t have to worry about missing critical information and having gone through a ton of work just to have a rejected, incomplete form bounce back to them.

Once the form is in an ECM system, leverage its built-in workflow capability to route the form to the correct person, which is based on data in the form. Yes, it is a huge time-saver! Along the way, the ECM system can also capture those supplemental documents that pop up as work progresses. Automatic notifications at each step will also reduce calls into the office. Workflows can also track each type of form’s legislative requirements and mandates for processing times, and prioritize those forms that are approaching their limits.

As a result of all of this awesome automation, your completed process will not only have a complete audit trail for transparency and reporting purposes, but responding to record requests will be much easier because your documents are in one place and can be delivered in virtually any format. In other words, no more rifling through desks, endlessly searching for misfiled documents or printing a forest’s worth in paper.

I Can Help Myself? Don’t Mind if I Do!

While these features are undoubtedly speeding up the fulfillment of records requests, they’re also enabling a self-serving public through the use of search portals. This saves constituents all the time they would have spent driving to offices or preparing snail-mailed documents, and it saves the agency workers from having to manage and sort stacks of paper.

I’m Ready to Comply and Fly

As you can see, complying with mandates and regulations doesn’t have to be difficult. With a public record agency operating on an ECM, you can ensure all the information that is requested will be securely delivered on time, in proper format, and exactly where it needs to be.

Does your agency leverage an ECM? If so, how is your workload now compared to life before ECM?

Coming in Part 6: Eliminating Duplicative Workflows

 

6 Ways ECM Can Help Government Overcome Challenges – Part 3

By: Kevin Ledgister, Marketing Manager, ImageSoft

148_fullinbox

You show up to work, get coffee, open your mail, open your email and check your phone and just like that, you have tens if not hundreds of requests for public records that you need take care of. Even if you can charge for it, the work is tedious, particularly if the records that you’re looking for aren’t where they’re supposed to be, or are covered in cobwebs and dust.

Virtually every government agency is bound by rules of transparency and openness to ensure public accountability. But short of allowing the public to come in and rifle through your files, search your network folders, or setup a new desk in your office, there just isn’t a good way to allow for self-serve access. Things get particularly thorny when you have to redact information or secure certain items from the public because of the sensitivity of the information that you are entrusted to protect. Those requests can take months or years if paper-based.

Public offices have tried to solve this by implementing some kind of image archive where staff can at least access that information faster – if they know what to look for. As an interim step, some offices have provided a kiosk in the lobby for the public to use but this still is not a very convenient solution. At ImageSoft, we hear these stories all the time.

Another challenge to transparency and openness is how to find the information when it has been converted to a digital format. Sometimes, things are not always indexed correctly, so finding the right information can also be an exercise in frustration. And if there is a legal proceeding and you find more stuff after you said that you provided everything, you probably won’t be having a good day.

An enterprise content management system (ECM) like OnBase, or what some call EDMS (electronic document management system) can help with transparency in several ways:

Read more about how ECM can address the challenges of various government offices.

Faster and more complete searches

While any system may have good metadata, a lot of useful information may not be stored as metadata but may be contained in the body of the content. For instance, a sub-contractor on a project may appear in a paragraph but the document may have been indexed using the name of the general contractor. A text search would be the only way to find what you’re looking for.

Easy redaction capability

Some documents should be available to the public but contain sensitive information that needs to be redacted, and at the same time, you need to keep the original. A good ECM solution allows you to create redacted copies for public consumption in the application while retaining the unredacted original securely without having to print, markup and rescan.

Online search access

Allowing the public self-serve access with both metadata and text searches frees up critical office resources. This method is only cost-effective if your ECM vendor offers some form of constituent or external user licensing.

Better tracking system

As we described, the process to track and handle the requests for which the public cannot access a record can be time consuming as well. We will cover more of this in a future blog post but an effective workflow tool that is integrated with your ECM/EDMS can receive requests electronically, track their progress and then electronically deliver results, which greatly reduces the burden on internal staff.

So, whether you store your documents in files and boxes, in network folders, or in an old archive, you can benefit significantly from upgrading to a true enterprise content management system that increases your ability to be transparent and open while reducing your staff’s workload.

If you’re not following our Paperless Process Blog, check out our blog series 6 Ways ECM Can Help Government Overcome Challenges – Part 1 and 2. In Part 1, we discuss the ways a digital workflow adds value to your operations. Part 2 focuses on slaying the paper dragons that want to take over your office.

Coming in Part 4: Meeting Constituent Needs