Moving your paper forms online

Our interesting Study
18 July, 2021 by
Moving your paper forms online
James Huang

We started a project with a simple yet comically broad mandate: Get rid of paper forms and PDFs and make all the form dynamically create by end-users.  A *lot* of that content was locked up in PDFs. For years, that was the way most information was posted in company HR, Legal and accounting departments.  Documents that were mostly content were broken down and rewritten and the client decided to brought us in and dedicated to moving those forms online.

Over the course of 4 weeks, we identified 95 forms and moved all of them online. Using a conservative estimate, moving those forms online saved under 10,000 hours per annum. They also made changes much more accessible.

Defining the Challenge

We started with a scrape of all PDF files detail. It was a lot, consisting of 6263 lines in a spreadsheet. When I first got that email, I wondered what I had gotten into.

seriously?

I put in my earbuds, fired up a Spotify, and started going line by line through the list. That took about 3 days. I would open the PDF, see if it was a form, and log it and create a unified data schema and structure across the company. I also reviewed contracts and documentation and interviewed employees to ask if they had other forms.

After the first month, I had identified 49 forms which related to customer contract. 49 forms is a lot, but having a set goal made it feel a lot more achievable. The difference between “49” and “we have no idea how many but it’s a lot” is important. However, I knew it wasn’t perfect. Too often in in big enterprise,  we demand that everything be perfectly mapped before we make any decisions.

To keep both internal team and external team organized, we created a ticket repository and logged each form as an issue/ ticket. It’s a bit weird, but Issues (approach) ended up being perfect. Issues let me include lots of information about each form, attach files and links, and use labels to group forms together by department, complexity, and technical requirements. We also plugs neatly into our own Kanban tools.

Technology

As soon as I started tracking forms, I also started figuring what I was going to use to bring them online. There are two major technical things that I wish I had started thinking about sooner.

Workflows — The process change is ESSENTIAL to make optimal process: any form that requires multiple steps of approval (Customer submits, Jim signs off, then Jane signs off) Those need to review carefully and appoint to the right person.

Web Applications — Some forms aren’t really forms at all. There are individual forms or clusters of them that only moving online won’t really help. For these, we need to build web applications that provide a better solution.

The business process behind this piece of paper

Occasionally, we had to flip the process to make it work.  Getting big company workers to accept online submissions rather than traditional paper ones is the bulk of this work. On average, it took me about 30 minutes to make a digital form and five weeks to meet with, earn the trust of, and get buy-in from the employees who would use it. Even if they were excited, the nitty gritty details took a lot of back and forth.

 I found success by minimizing change as much as possible and giving them clear choices. When I met with a department, I would give them three options for receiving submissions:

  • A submission emailed to them.

  • A PDF of the submission dropped into a File Folder.

  • A line added to a tracking spreadsheet with the submission data.

Some departments had sort-of insane business processes for submissions. If I tried to change those, I would spend a whole year on a single department. By focusing on the priority, moving forms online and making it easier for the customer, I could make consistent progress rather than be consistently blocked. Some departments moved to a more digital process; some literally print out submitted PDFs and put them in the wooden department inbox. Either way, customers can submit online and the system is saving time.  While I avoided a bunch of process change, there were some takeaways that I think are useful for anyone working to move government forms online:

There is huge demand to move forms online — I had expected to drag departments online kicking and screaming. Instead, the majority of departments were eager to move things online and thrilled to have a partner with the technical knowledge, mandate, and tools to do that.

Flexibility about form structure and questions — I initially thought there would be a strong demand for submissions that look exactly like current paper forms. That hasn’t been the case. In all but one or two cases, I was not only able to move forms online, but also suggest changes that made forms shorter, more clear, and more accessible.

Excited about future change — Early on I began to notice a pattern. A few weeks after I moved a form online, some departments would to reach back out and ask for tools to help them manage digital submission, “This has been absolutely amazing. It would be great if I could approve it and then send it to Steve for his signature”. If I tried to change everything about the way these departments worked right off the bat, they would have resisted every step of the way. Moving just a part of their workflow online made them eager to go completely digital.

What’s next

We’ve made a lot of progress in the last year, but there’s a long way to go.

Two big questions we need to answer:

Who should be doing all this process change? — I’ve been doing it because, well, it was my job to get forms online. I’ve seen that same pattern as I talk with other cities. The tech teams are driving internal process change because a lot of that internal change involves technology. That sort of works, but it also creates a weird dynamic because the tech teams don’t have the training nor the explicit mandate to mess around with other people’s jobs. Would this be better served by a specific team who does have that training and mandate?

What even is a form, anyway? — Too often in big company, we remain beholden to physical relics as we move things online. This is all information moving back and forth. Do we need to rethink what we call certain things? How do laws affect this? How does customer expectations vary if something is called a form vs. if it is called a permit?

Moving your paper forms online
James Huang
18 July, 2021
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