5 reasons why consulates are going paperless

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European consulates gain the impetus and funding to go paperless

5 Reasons why Consulates are going paperless

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Executive summary

Technology experts have been forecasting the imminent arrival of the paperless office for decades. But until recently, many government offices have resisted digitising records.

That’s starting to change in European consulates.

Five different developments are encouraging governments to rethink their paper-based processes and digitise more.


The paperless dream

Business leaders and technologists have long fantasised of a world where paper is no longer necessary. Back in June of 1975, BusinessWeek magazine published an article titled ‘The Office of the Future’ that asked various business executives how the workplace would change in the coming decades.

Several of the interviewees thought that the paperless office would become a reality within just 10 or 15 years. For example, Vincent E. Giuliano, who worked for management consulting firm Arthur D. Little, told the publication that offices would be using much less paper by 1980, ‘and by 1990, most record-handling will be electronic.’

Similarly, George E. Pake, who then led Xerox Corp.’s Palo Alto Research Center, predicted that by 1995, he would have a TV-like display on his desk. ‘I’ll be able to call up documents from my files on the screen, or by pressing a button,’ he said. ‘I can get my mail or any messages. I don’t know how much hard copy [printed paper] I’ll want in this world.’

Whilst Pake’s description of 1990’s computing seems eerily prescient, he was entirely wrong about how long and how much paper companies of that era would want to keep.

Evelyn Berezin, founder and president of Redactron, which made early word processors, was also quoted in the same article. But she took a more pessimistic— and ultimately realistic—view. When asked when the paperless office would arrive, she replied, ‘It will be a long time—it always takes longer than we expect to change the way people customarily do their business.’ She added, ‘The EDP [electronic data processing] industry in the 1950s thought that the whole world would have made the transition to computers by 1960. And it hasn’t happened yet.’

Berezin was right.

The transition to paperless took far, far longer than most of the early prognosticators forecasted. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that entirely paperless processes began to catch on. And the public sector has continued to rely heavily on printed forms and records into the 2020s.

However, recent years have seen a sharp increase in the rate at which offices—particularly EU government offices—are becoming more paperless. For example, there are currently initiatives underway in Spain and Portugal to digitise approximately 4 million pages of older government records. And France is working to scan and digitally store approximately 4.2 million pages.

This rapid change begs a couple of questions: First, why are so many different European governments deciding that now is the right time to go paperless? And if agencies are not currently working on digitisation projects, should they be?

Why now?

Consulates have long relied on manual, paper-based processes to meet the needs of the citizens living outside their native countries. However, five factors are driving accelerated digitisation:

1. The RRF opportunity

One of the reasons why governments sometimes hesitate to embark on digitization initiatives is that these efforts can require an upfront investment. Consulates and other government agencies might have millions of pages of records stored in their filing cabinets. Organisations need scanning hardware, as well as digital storage systems with appropriate security to protect citizens’ personally identifiable information.

But even more significant than the financial investment, is the time investment. It can take hours to scan documents, double-check the results for accuracy, and securely dispose of the paper files. If consulates try to hire and train staff to handle these projects on their own, it can quickly overwhelm their budgets. And it might take decades to complete the task.

However, the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) is providing countries with the funding necessary to contract with third-party vendors to handle digitisation tasks in a small fraction of the time it would otherwise take.

Passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and later enhanced to respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the RRF provides member countries with funds for projects that line up with the EU’s priorities. More specifically, it makes available to European governments a total of 723.8 billion EUR, including 385.8 billion EUR in loans and 338 billion EUR in grants. According to the European Commission website, ‘The RRF helps the EU achieve its target of climate neutrality by 2050, and sets Europe on a path of digital transition, creating jobs and spurring growth in the process.’

Each EU country has its own plan for using the funds. Many have set aside funds to become more environmentallyfriendly, and digital transformation projects like digitising consulate records. And some consulates are using the funds to get the initial investment they need for their transition to paperless processes.

Once the initial digitization is complete and consulates transition to entirely digital processes, consulates often find that the savings realised as a result of paperless processes pays for the digitisation over time. Because digital storage takes up so much less space than physical filing cabinets, consulates can either reduce their real estate footprint, or repurpose their existing space to be more efficient. In addition, paperless processes generally require fewer staff and allow consulates to complete their work more quickly. Efficiencies like these enabled one government to save 120,000 EUR after digitising more than 1.1 million documents.

2. Lingering pandemic effects

The COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread, long-lasting societal changes. Over the course of the pandemic, many individuals re-considered their work and living situations. Many resigned positions or changed their line of work. Some now refuse to take positions that require long hours, whilst others only want to take jobs that allow them to work from home. As a result, many organisations now struggle to find the workers that they need.

Consulates are not immune from these pressures. In fact, in some cases, they find it even more difficult to find staff because most consulate workers must be on-site.

At the same time that they were re-thinking their career choices, many people decided that the pandemic was the ideal time to move to a new country. And now that pandemic restrictions are lifted, people are travelling more. These factors have increased the workload at consulates, requiring more work with fewer staff.

Another key pandemic effect was to change how much we rely on technology every day. Analysts at EY note, ‘One of the most striking consequences of the pandemic has been the increasing reliance on technology in our daily lives.’ Video calls and online shopping became the norm. When people were prevented from going out of doors, much of their lives migrated online.

One analyst firm says that many government agencies responded to these changes by increasing their level of digitisation. It writes, ‘The pandemic has sparked and accelerated digital innovation across governments worldwide. The challenge now is to scale these efforts for governments to remain—or to become more— trusted, agile, and resilient providers of citizen services and value to the public.’

3. Citizen expectations

The coronavirus accelerated an existing trend toward citizens expecting to be able to do most things online.

According to EY, ‘There is a broad appetite among citizens for more digitally enabled public services.’ However, it adds, ‘But while governments have accelerated the shift toward the digitalisation of many public services, they continue to lag behind services provided by the private sector, such as online shopping and banking, in terms of expected improvements in service provision.’ It adds, ‘Globally, only around half of citizens (53%) think governments and public services have effectively used digital technology to respond to the pandemic.’

In other words, while the pandemic encouraged government offices to modernise and digitise, those government offices often didn’t change quickly enough to meet citizen expectations.

Most people carry smartphones they can use to make purchases, communicate with friends and family, access news and information, entertain themselves, make banking transactions, and interact with companies of all kinds. These experiences inform the expectations they have of their governments.

Consulates are realising that they may fall short of expectations, and it’s one of the factors leading them to consider going paperless.