Published: July 7, 2020
We know that moving to paperless processes has been a goal for some local governments. If you were on the fence, the pandemic might be prompting you to explore your options now. Here is some information we frequently share when asked about going paperless.
Where to find guidance
Most often, governments want to know if going paperless is allowed and if there are any requirements they need to know. You might be surprised to learn the Budgeting, Accounting, and Reporting System (BARS) Manual contains guidance on electronic documentation. In fact, it was recently updated to reflect some changes in state law. In short, electronic documentation is allowable so long as safeguards exist to ensure that it cannot be changed and is properly retained. To read more:
- BARS GAAP Manual: www.sao.wa.gov/bars_gaap/accounting/accounting-principles-and-internal-control/original-supporting-documentation/
- BARS Cash Manual: www.sao.wa.gov/bars_cash/accounting/accounting-principles-and-internal-control/original-supporting-documentation/
Additional considerations for going paperless
Here are some questions you should consider when getting started:
- What security and access controls do you have over your document management systems? Protect data by actively managing system access and user permissions.
- How will you store confidential or sensitive content differently from other records, so you can limit access? Some records should be stored differently so that only employees with a business need can access that data.
- How will you identify what gets destroyed? This includes the electronic data, as well as any underlying records that might be associated with it. You will want an easy way to remove data that you are no longer required to retain.
- What is your process for data backup and recovery? Your system should minimize data loss risks.
- If you contract with a third party to image, process or store documents for you, how will you monitor their performance under the contract? Records could be damaged, lost, or improperly imaged. Even though you contract with a vendor for records management services, you are still responsible for complying with records retention requirements.
Resources you might find helpful
- How to Eliminate Paper and Save Time and Money (from the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA)): This guide identifies eight ways to reduce paper in your business processes. It discusses do-it-yourself (DIY) methods that are low cost and also technology‑based solutions. One word of caution: Some of the DIY options rely on email, but confidential information should be encrypted when transmitted over email.
GFOA has also made available a 16-minute podcast that accompanies this new guide, which can be a great listen while you are on a walk!
- Records Management Technology Guide (from Municipal Research Services Center (MRSC) and the Washington State Auditor’s Office).If you are looking to purchase records management software, this guide has helpful advice. It includes an overview of software options, suggested guidelines when evaluating software, and information about state assistance and grant programs.
- Electronic records policy toolkit (from MRSC and the Washington State Auditor’s Office).Moving to electronic recordkeeping might require policy updates. This resource can help you navigate those changes.
- Backup and Recovery Best Practices (from the Washington State Auditor’s Office). Make sure you have processes in place to safeguard all of your electronic data.
As always, if you have a question, we are here to help! While we might not be able to answer your legal questions, reach out to us with any specific technical questions at the SAO help desk, which is available by logging into our Online Services. Or, if you want to talk with one of our financial technical staff, email Center@sao.wa.gov.