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Tech community tapped in move to rid city of paper

Friday, January 19, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Paper-driven processes through Austin’s city government are on the way out with the announcement of a new collaboration with the city’s tech community. The partnership, announced Thursday, will see the city pair up with the Austin Tech Alliance and members of the Capital Factory tech business incubator to identify ways to digitize operations at all levels of government in an attempt to save money and make data more readily available to residents.

The first step will see the tech community conduct a “paper census” of city operations by gathering input from the public about the ways they interact with the city that could be made more efficient and easier. The project as a whole will be overseen by ATA staff member Sarah Ortiz Shields, a project manager and former fellow with the city’s Innovation Office.

The collaboration is one product of the Smart Austin Strategic Roadmap approved by City Council last year, with Council Member Ann Kitchen pushing for ways to modernize operations so residents have an easier time accessing city data.

“We need to make sure our residents have access to services as easily as getting groceries delivered or looking up a bus schedule,” she said. “It will improve access and help us reduce our costs … and help us share information to improve our decision-making by getting feedback on what (residents) think is cumbersome and most needs to be fixed.”

The paper census will result in a list of processes from across all city departments that can be modernized and made paperless. That list will then be parsed based on cost, impact to residents, potential savings and potential for volunteers from the tech community to put their talents to use quickly to create prototypes of solutions to improve those operations.

At a press conference announcing the initiative, city staff members said procurement, transportation and human resources – including the city’s continued use of paper timecards for payroll – are some of the areas that present opportunities for improvement.

Josh Baer, founder and executive director of Capital Factory and ATA board member, said tech workers are enthusiastic to use their talents to solve problems and could get more involved in civic life as a result of working with city departments.

“There’s this obvious thing sitting right in front of us with all this paper and process that seems like it’s from 20 or 30 years ago but still are part of everyday life today,” he said.

“Those things slow everything down, they cost more money and they often make things not work. From the ATA perspective, our focus is to get the tech community more engaged in civic life so they know more and care more about what’s going on. One of the ways to do that is to get them exposed to the problems the city faces and get them engaged in solving those problems by doing what they love, which is building stuff.”

Solutions generated from the paper census will require a combination of action from staff and Council, with budget adjustments for departments or ordinance changes possibly needed to adjust the way operations are conducted.

There are no estimates yet for how much money the city could save as a result of reducing paper-driven processes, but Kerry O’Connor, director of the Innovation Office, said during her time with the U.S. State Department it was calculated that every paper travel voucher cost $21 to process.

“We know the cost of human transaction using paper is a lot,” she said. “You have to identify the processes and then chase them back in how many hours that takes and how many hands it passes through. Getting to more precise measures about the savings will come when we do the paper census and we can really start methodically going down bit by bit with the data, and then start to prioritize.”

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