Technology Can Help Shrink County's Paper Mountain
By Lisa Rein
Sunday, July 18, 2004; Page C04
Fairfax County is reinventing the way its 11,500 employees communicate.
The county may be the region's epicenter of high technology, but its government lags in one pervasive way that it does business: It's awash in paper.
The burdens of an excess of paper became clear to Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) as soon as she took office in January. She says she was inundated with faxes, electronic messages and mail (the post office-routed kind). Land-use lawyers, fellow supervisors, civic groups, the county clerk, even telemarketers were writing. But the same correspondence was arriving on her desk three times, once through each medium. The Board of Supervisors meeting agenda, for example, can run hundreds of pages. And that's minus the ones scattered throughout the package that read, "This page intentionally left blank."
"It's redundant," Smyth said. "As a new board member, you feel like you're drowning in a sea of paper. It doesn't seem to get any better, even when you've been on the board for years." In March, she begged for relief at a Board of Supervisors meeting.
Enter the Paper Reduction Task Force.
That's the group of experts from departments as varied as public affairs, archives and information technology that has been meeting to map out change. The goal? To fully usher in the electronic age in Fairfax.
A small but important case in point came Friday, when the Courier, a biweekly newsletter for employees, appeared online for the first time on the county's internal Web site. The issue features an interview with Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D). Until now, the publication was mailed to retired employees and distributed at government buildings.
Other changes are in the works: more printing and copying on both sides of the page instead of one, more correspondence and other county business through e-mail, and more production of big documents on CD-ROM, such as the publication of the Park Authority's recent annual report.
Saving money is one goal, but it's not the only one. "There's an environmental aspect: saving trees," said Merni Fitzgerald, the county's public affairs director and a task force member. Efficiency is high on the list, too, because many tasks can be completed faster through e-mail.
Lest these changes seem straightforward, consider that not every county document can be legally transmitted electronically. Some need original signatures. Some need to be notarized.
Then there is the tricky task of what the experts call document retention. Paper is now stored in county archives in a warehouse in Springfield, where a staff of six files and monitors about 50,000 boxes, each containing 2,000 to 3,000 records. Everything from personnel data to the disposition to traffic tickets to the papers of former county board chairmen is there. By rule of thumb, each employee creates 1.5 cubic feet of records each year, archivist Richard Harrington said.
Scanning those records onto computer servers will save space. But software quickly becomes obsolete. The changes will be hard to keep up with as well as costly. And the public will need access. "Will an old Microsoft Windows program still be readable when you're up to version 10?" Harrington asked.
About 2,000 employees, such as inspectors and maintenance workers, do not have access to computers at work. The county is weighing the best methods to get publications and other correspondence to such workers.
Meanwhile, the task force is focusing on how to bring about change that goes beyond technology: people's behavior. Many employees like to print out an e-mail document, and, right now, that's their prerogative. Fitzgerald said that County Executive Anthony H. Griffin will issue a memo to staff members in the coming weeks asking them to limit those printouts.
"We're basically talking about a behavior change," she said. "When you think paperwork reduction, you may be thinking, 'Put it double-sided.' But it's so much more than that."
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