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European consulates are going paperless due to the convergence of recent developments. These include the funding and support of the European Union’s Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF), lingering impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, green expectations by citizens, government mandates, and efforts by organisations to mitigate climate change.
The idea of a paperless office goes back more than half a century. However, the time and cost to digitise hundreds, thousands, or millions of documents within businesses and governments, along with the lack of robust solutions to secure and manage electronic documents, have proven to be daunting barriers.
Driven by the need to socially distance during the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the European Union saw the immediate and ongoing value of digital transformation for both employees and citizens. They established the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) to provide loans, grants, and best practices for digitization to European governments. Among the recipients are the governments of Spain, France, and Portugal..
From paying bills online to filing taxes electronically and writing emails instead of letters, the move to paperless processes is growing. A study by Statista found that the global consumption of paper and paperboard totalled 408 million tons in 2021. Consumption is projected to continue rising over the coming decade, reaching 476 million tons by 2032. Globally, 14% of deforestation is due to the demand for paper, which requires the annual destruction of 4.1 million hectares of a forest the size of the Netherlands, according to another study.
In the U.S., financial companies like Bank of America, along with many insurance companies and accounting firms have transitioned to paperless systems. Healthcare is attempting full digitization with electronic medical records (EMRs) and patient portals. But a study by the Association for Intelligent Information Management (AII) found just 17% of U.S. offices are paperless.
The time and staffing required to scan large caches of documents, double-check the quality of digitised versions, and securely trash the paper versions have been substantial. Employees can also be resistant to change. Transitioning from a paper-based system to an all-digital one requires different workflow, processes, and habits. Data security and privacy concerns have also slowed the paperless office, especially as cybersecurity threats have resulted in well publicised data breaches and ransomware attacks.
Consulates have long relied on manual, paper-based processes to handle new, renewed, and replacement passports; visas; birth, marriage, and death certificates; Consular Reports of Birth Abroad (CRBA); Power of Attorney and notary services; travel advisories; and other consular information. While specific procedures and protocols can vary between consulates and countries, all take measures to ensure the security and privacy of the documents they store.
The European Union’s Path to the Digital Decade program requires that the paperwork for key public services be digitised and 100% online by 2030. The 2021 European climate law calls for all EU countries to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. So consulates and other government offices throughout Europe have clear mandates to pursue digital transformation.
Additionally, European consulates have been influenced by expectations by citizens, especially younger ones wanting to do business and interact with the government online for convenience, as well as for environmental sustainability. People around the world broadly support efforts to mitigate climate change as do Europeans. They understand that trees help reduce greenhouse gases by absorbing them and that the efforts to turn trees into paper, printing on that paper, and then recycling masses of paper all generate planet-warming C02 emissions.
Initiatives are underway among consulates located in Spain and Portugal to digitise four million pages of government records. Among consulates located in France, the goal is 4.2 million digitised pages. Consulates in Finland have switched to paperless meetings. An online visa application process to enter EU countries has been replaced by a largely paperless process.
These are just some of the paperless initiatives underway among European consulates that have been welcomed by citizens as well as staff, some of whom can now work remotely, with secured access to applications and data. This migration within the EU was a phenomenon that accelerated during the pandemic, when remote work was required. It increased the workload at consulates while freeing some consulate workers to move to different EU countries. Some have remained there even after the pandemic, enjoying the ease and utility of paperless processes.