In the latest issue of Government Business magazine divisional managing director, Craig Naylor-Smith, discusses how important it is for the public sector to embrace the technology that will enable them to become truly paperless.

Under the watchful eye of the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, the NHS continues to work hard to meet the target set for it to become completely paperless by 2018.

If this target is achieved, the NHS is estimated to make £5bn annual cost savings and the achievement will give further encouragement to other Government departments and local authorities to follow suit. So why exactly does the public sector need to focus its efforts on a paperless future? Craig Smith, divisional managing director of leading business process outsourcer Parseq explores this issue further.

For many working outside the public sector it’s hard to imagine not having all the information that they need digitised but that’s exactly the situation the NHS and local authorities are faced with.

When asked why public services such as the NHS should become paperless, Hunt said: “The NHS cannot be the last man standing as the rest of the economy embraces the technology revolution. It is crazy that paramedics cannot access a full medical history of someone they are picking up in an emergency and that GPs and hospitals still struggle to share digital records.”

And Jeremy Hunt has a point. Public services should be leading the way in delivering the very best and processing cost efficiencies, rather than being so reliant on physical archives storing files.

As it currently stands there are 64 million UK residents and each will have a record of their health and treatment needs. At the moment these records are for the most part in paper form and managed by a large and costly team of employees.

Without a digital document management system in place this is a massive undertaking, rife with the opportunity for human error and what’s more this is just scratching the surface of the challenge ahead.

By employing a document management system to handle this area the NHS could see massive cost savings, efficiencies and significant overall improvement. By using the technology available vital information could be searched for and acted upon immediately. A stark contrast to the current process of requesting patient information to be faxed across departments and letters, such as GP referrals, being sent via postal services.

These benefits could be recognised across not only the NHS but also throughout all government departments and local authorities.

A report by think tank, Policy Exchange, recommends that government departments should do more to embrace digital document and data management. It highlights the vast benefits to issuing and accepting electronic proofs, making electronic purchases based on open standards and incorporating digital and data skills explicitly into the Civil Service competency framework.

Remarking on the report, Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office said: “This report recognises the considerable process and remarkable potential. By shifting government transactions to digital channels we’ll be able to deliver better value for hardworking families and better public services designed around users’ needs. In future all government services will be fast convenient, agile and digital by default.”

To help smooth the transition Hunt has announced the need for assured plans to be put forward to demonstrate how organisations such as the NHS will move towards becoming more efficient and also how they plan to realise their commitment of becoming paperless through embracing technology.  Plans which should be underpinned by guidance from the NHS Commissioning Board which is leading implementation of the NHS digital transition specifically.

When you consider the scale of the transition developing these assurance plans could be easier said than done. It’s fairly clear to see the benefits and outcomes of adopting digital processes, but how do authorities start this transformation?

On a very basic level the first recommendation I would make is by undertaking a comprehensive audit of the type and volume of documents that come into the organisation, how they are responded to and what outbound documents are distributed. You need to take a magnifying glass to every procedure.  It’s often easier for a consultant with an objective eye to do this. I know I have a vested interest in making that statement but it is very often true, especially if the same process has been used for a long period of time and has become entrenched in the culture of the organisation.

Security provision is also a key consideration in the development of these assurance plans. Whether you’re designing document management processes and technology for private or public organisations keeping sensitive data confidential is key.

The data has to be accessible, but only to those authorised. This is one rather large stumbling block the NHS has faced in previous attempts to digitise patient records.

This process is lengthy and requires close attention to detail but will be critical in determining what technology and procedures are needed in the immediate and longer term.

There is no doubt that paperless operations are the way forward. There is no paper trail to go missing, everything is stored centrally and securely and information can be shared immediately. There is a long journey ahead for the NHS and local authorities but one which, thanks to continual investment and advances in technology, is now within reach.