Paperless Office Issues

Dear Management Doctor:

What has been the problem or unforeseen issues with a paperless office? And what was the solution?

Jack Pace
Tukwila, WA


Dear Jack,

We would like to hear from our emailers relating to your question. I speculate the issues are:

  • Cost: This is a short term issue. I believe long term efficiencies will more than cover the costs. The cost include software and larger computer screens.
  • Training: Staff will need to be trained to use the plan check software and handle work on the computer rather than paper.
  • Staff resistance: Most staff are used to working with paper and will resist the change. This is truer of the older staff and less true of younger staff who are used to being paperless in their personal lives.
In any case, we are about to do a Survey Monkey survey of all the communities in the U.S. and Canada currently using electronic plan check. If you know of any we missed on our list we distributed, please let us know. We will share what we find out with our emailers.

Save the trees!

The Management Doctor

Reader Responses

Greetings from the Canadian Rockies.

The latest email thread regarding the paperless office reminded me how you have always pushed for the marriage of land use planning and technology. A project we’re in the midst of, that may be of interest to you, is the obliquely titled Commercial Floor Space Administration System (C-FAS). At its core, this project will establish a sub-building land use dataset for the commercial areas of our Town, allowing us to track changes of use at a high resolution, linking application data to the sub-parcel level (important for us with many mixed-use buildings), as well as analyze adjacency relationships which were less obvious at the parcel scale. I won’t go into the trigger behind creating this, but you can read more here.

The potential of this data set is really incredible with other organization types (e.g. university campuses, research campuses) really leading the way in using BIMs for space planning, energy use analysis, etc... We’re already thinking about spin-off potential, for example developing a tablet based first-responder application for fire fighters, or using it to model natural gas (heating) consumption by tying in sub-building meter data.

While still in its initial data entry stages, we’re excited about the potential. We’ll probably try to get this on an ESRI conference radar in future once our data set becomes more complete and we’ve started working with it.

All the best.
Darren Enns

We are a much smaller city, but every single application that we receive for any permits from the six permit issuing boards that we staff (Planning, Zoning, Conservation, Historical, and Architecture) go on the web automatically the moment an applicant files and the plans go on the web within two weeks of the applicant filing.

Wayne Feiden, FAICP
Northampton, MA 

Management Doctor Emailers - Please help with the following!

I was recently forwarded a copy of a Management Doctor letter dealing with paperless offices.

I am a manager at the Department of Planning and Development for the City of Seattle. We have just begun implementation of our electronic plan review. Applicants may submit their plans and documentation electronically, we review it and issue it electronically.

I my role as Resource Manager I am responsible for providing access to the Department’s records. As we move to electronic plan review I want to make the approved plans available to the public via the web. (Seattle currently makes approved plans available thru a microfilm library in our office.)

I’m curious as to whether you know of any agencies who are making plans available via the web to the public.

Thank you for your assistance.

Sue Putnam, Manager
Public Resource Center

A couple of years ago, I made a very short comment at a staff meeting about the efficiencies of going paperless, and within a year it seemed to be in everyone's head that we needed to try, with only minor exceptions.

Now that minor exception has retired, and it is full on! We're small, about 14 people in the town hall, but the range in age is teens to sixties. Our boards have also been retrained, for the most part, to only want electronic versions of minutes, agendas etc.

Our permitting system is currently on a path to ultimately be paperless after the application is submitted. It is very difficult to have the general population want to do things electronically, but that's okay. The wasted paper isn't in the initial application, it is in the board reviews. Five to 10 copies for each submission! Please.

As for plan check, it is difficult in our small market to receive electronic plans consistently. Sometimes, but smaller offices still rely on paper.

I guess my message is, make it part of your department plan, measure progress, and try different things. Each office is different, and it really is a systems thing. But the most successful solutions have come from my least paid employees just trying to make it work. Go figure.

Records are a key too. Our goal is to get it down to one file cabinet, from eight. Basically only the current projects. I know we will because they are sitting in my new office. As soon as we get that new document scanner…

And the monitors. They are dirt cheap! We just bought two Dell 24" professional level monitors for $240 a piece! Delivered. The new server space was a little pricey, but compared to even a few years ago it is pretty cheap.

We are even ordering a new monitor with wireless to have a information sign in the hall. $500, infinitely customizable.

We still use plenty of paper, but I would say we have gone below half of what it was just a few years ago.

Just do it.

Dan Kwasnowski
Town of Dryden, NY

Not sure if we’re on your list, but the City of Sierra Vista, AZ recently implemented the TRAKiT permit processing software program. We are still using hard-copy submittals for reviews with all permit tracking online.


Donald Brush, AICP
Sierra Vista, AZ

Greetings from Durango Colorado.

While we are moving towards doing a paperless office and a paperless City (to the extent possible), we are still a year or two out from doing so, primarily because of City-wide budget cuts, which forced a shift of our timeframes into the future.

I understand your reasons as to what some of the problems in implementing a paperless office are (e.g. cost, training, staff resistance).

I would encourage you to add to your survey this question, or something like it which gets to the same point:

• Do organizations migrating towards paperless offices foresee any problems going paperless if citizens are not capable of submitting paperless applications, etc.? In other words, one of the problems we anticipate is that we believe some, possibly even many, citizens are not capable of (at least anytime soon) of doing everything on line or digitally. How is it an organization can go entirely paperless if the applicants aren’t?

I would be most interested in finding out the answer to this, as we foresaw it as being a big impediment to our goals.

I saw an earlier email where reference was made to the software vendors who are engaged in this transition. Our finance department selected MSGovern. I would also be interested in finding out whether communities who use MSGovern have fared, and if I can’t find that out, knowing who uses MSGovern would also be helpful.

Any tips on how to find this information out?


Greg Hoch, Director
City of Durango

We’re trying to go paperless also and have a couple of strategies that we’re testing:

  • Provide a hard copy option for those that don’t have internet access or computer skills.  We send faxes to some board members who do not have, or don’t often read, their email.
  • Use PowerPoint/IPads in meetings instead of making copies, when possible.

IPad applications are sprouting up everywhere.  I don’t know if any planners are working on mobile apps, but it’ll happen before we know it. For documents alone, a basic e-reader could take the place of  the more expensive IPad.

Good luck on going greener.

Nancy Benziger Brown

One of the greatest, and often not stated, advantages of electronic record keeping is the ease with which it makes public decision making more transparent. The use of electronic files and the web greatly increase the public ability to know about and become involved in the decision making process. 

Charles Bien

We are a much smaller city, but every single application that we receive for any permits from six permit issuing boards that we staff (Planning, Zoning, Conservation, Historical, and Architecture) the applications go on the web automatically the moment an applicant files and the plans go on the web within two weeks of the applicant filing.

Wayne Feiden, FAICP
Northampton, MA 

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