Getting Rid of Paper - a Path to a More Efficient Assessor's Office
A Paperless Office?
Since the 80s, when computers became prevalent in offices, the idea of a paperless office has tantalized corporate and government managers alike. For local governments in particular, an office without paper, one where documents and transactions are all digital, offers many benefits:
- cost savings;
- time savings;
- easier collaboration amongst employees on projects and tasks;
- better document security;
- a tidier workspace;
- a more convenient, interactive experience for constituents;
- better transparency to the public.
Unfortunately, the paperless office has been a myth for the most part, at least when it comes to assessing. Most assessing offices are replete with paper. Paper property cards, paper forms, stacks of organized papers waiting for filing, messy piles that are being analyzed, large filing cabinets of archived property cards and forms - for many assessors, paper is the norm.
The Obstacles to Using Less Paper
To digitize processes like data collection or forms there are two obstacles assessors must overcome: technology and human nature. Of the two, technology is the easier problem to solve.
To successfully digitize a process you need four main technologies:
- Well-designed mobile and web-based user-interfaces - applications need to be designed with the end-user in mind so that people of all levels of technical skills can use the system.
- Scanner - You need to be able to transform the paper still present in your process into a digital file that can be stored, organized, and searched.
- Cloud storage - data needs to be stored in a centralized location that is accessible by computers, phones, and tablets anywhere.
- Automation - if the system doesn’t automate a good portion of a process, stick with paper.
With these technologies you can collect information in a native digital form (via the user-interfaces) or you can collect information via paper and turn the paper into a digital representation that can be filed and searched.
Human nature is tougher to influence. People get used to working a certain way. They might have had a bad experience in the past when their office tried to go paperless, which influences how they perceive changes toward a more digital workflow. They might not trust that the process will work. There are a variety of reasons for people to say no to a change, so assessors will need to plan on how to get their staff onboard. In most cases, having the staff help to plan a transition from from paper to digital is a good way to address a lot of the issues. By being participants in change from the outset, the staff have control of the change and can become comfortable.
A Good Example of Using Less Paper - Digital Data Collection in Pinellas County, Florida
A couple of months ago, at the IAAO Conference in Boston, I had the pleasure to attend the presentation “Going Paperless”. Michael Daly, Sara Delli Fraine, and Jacqueline Warr from Pinellas County, Florida talked about the challenges and benefits of converting data collection to a digital workflow. It was one of the best presentations I’ve seen on the subject of data collection and the impact digitization can have on an assessor’s office.
The group was methodical. They tested different types of tablets. They tried different methods for taking parcel data into the field and updating it. They explored ways to sync changes back to the CAMA system. They thought through and tested the new workflows digital data collection required . . .
Pinellas County needed to digitize data collection:
- to reduce preparation time; just getting ready to go into the field took a field appraiser two hours a day as the field appraiser manually chose which properties to visit and then printed all of the property cards, logs, and plat maps;
- to reduce the physical amount of space paper archives took up; rooms were filled with large filing cabinets that housed archived marked-up property cards from previous visits;
- to ensure that data collectors had the most current information in the field through a direct connection to the CAMA database;
- and to simplify the data entry process, which also took a lot of time and was error-prone.
In 2016, the transformation process began with a group of lead users and a decision to build their own system. This group was composed of a mix of forward thinkers, technical experts (from the IT department and from the assessing department), and technophobes that would need to be convinced of the effectiveness of ditching paper.
The group was methodical. First they decided on the best technical path. They tested different types of tablets. They tried different methods for taking parcel data into the field and updating it. They explored ways to sync changes back to the CAMA system. They thought through and tested the new workflows digital data collection required (preparing for a day in the field, finding a property without a paper map, logging pictures with a property card instead of using a separate photo log). Ultimately, they solved the technology problem by using Microsoft Power BI to connect to the CAMA system and manage parcel selection for inspections, iPads to access the CAMA system in the field to collect and update data, PDF Annotator to update sketches, and Microsoft OneDrive to store field photos. Once they had taken care of the technical obstacle, they addressed the human nature challenge by rolling out the system one field team at a time, person by person.
The team knew that people are more apt to accept change if they see peers that have already embraced it. Keeping this fact in mind, the lead user group became trainers for the rest of the staff, highlighting the similarities between the lead user group and the rest of the office. For most of the staff, the transition was fairly easy - they had been getting updates on the lead user group's progress throughout the process and felt comfortable voicing concerns to their lead user colleagues. Once the staff experienced the productivity gains and the ease with which data collection was done using the new system, they fully embraced the transition.
Even the people least likely to accept the changes, the technophobes, embraced the technology for many of the same reasons. They had colleagues to whom they could ask questions without feeling stupid and those same colleagues had gotten used to the technology, so why couldn't they?
The benefits to the assessing office were dramatic:
- Preparation time decreased between 87.5% and 95%, going from 2 hours to as few as 5 minutes;
- Inspection time decreased so more properties were visited in the same amount of time;
- Data entry time decreased;
- Data quality increased; and
- Staff became more productive: the staff now visits 120,000 parcels per year across 20 residential areas.
Without a doubt, going paperless was a huge success for Pinellas County and the team there continues to seek improvement of the data collection process through increased automation and the introduction of new technologies.
Attacking the Quest for Less Paper Your Way
The Pinellas County, Florida example higlights both the benefits an assessor can reap when they embrace a digital workflow and the work that’s required to make such transitions. The team at Pinellas literally spent years arriving at a solution that the staff could embrace, but the work they put in has more than paid for itself in terms of the efficincies and productivity they've gained.
In assessing there are two workflows currently that are ripe for digitization - data collection and forms. Our experience is that if you can digitize these two things, then you're ahead of the curve. To succeed in going paperless in data collection and form processing, you've got to understand the workflows you are digitizing, consider how you’ll achieve your goals technologically and culturally, and commit yourself to solving the problem in chunks. Collaborate with partners (your IT department and a vendor like CIDARE) that can help you solve the technical problems while you focus on the cultural transition that is necessary.
You may not get rid of paper completely, but you can still reap most of the benefits. Who doesn’t want to save money, have a more productive and happier workforce, and provide a better experience for constituents?