Going Paperless: Target the Waste

coinsIt seems that everyone everywhere is tightening their belt these days – so when budgets become a sensitive subject, I often recall one of my favorite charts that I liked to trot out when I worked in the bureaucracy at the Department of Energy and was trying to get traction on ideas to change the way they did consumer information.

There are two questions on my Manage Your Capacity chart: are you doing the right job, and are you doing it well. As a quad chart, there are four possible answers. Either you are doing the right job and doing it well, you are doing the wrong job and doing it poorly. Or perhaps you are doing the right job but doing it poorly. Or perhaps you are doing the wrong job but doing it well.

Funny thing about this chart: it demonstrates how even those who commit to quality can stumble. And of course, there is really only one right answer: do the right job and do it well…


I remembered this chart the other day when I read about the Senate Assembly in New York State and how they rebooted their news clips. Like many public sector organizations with a heavy appetite for seeing their own names in print. So they had a whole department that was in charge of clipping newspapers, Xeroxing the clips and distributing them by hand.

It turns out some bright light in Albany thought that it was time to retire that horse and buggy show. So they shut it all down, pocketed the $4M in savings (that’s right – four million!), and set up some news aggregator feeds to send electronic clips in real-time to relevant parties.

The larger the organization, the more likely it is that they have a dedicated team of people who work on offline publications. Many times, the budget for this type of materials and production are larger than you would expect. The editorial prowess, design staff and printers on stand-by have a well-oiled machine that turns out reports, brochures and more. Too often, these documents end up stuffed in boxes and hidden in closets – failing to reach the intended audience and wasting precious outreach dollars.


When I worked at the Department of Energy in the late 1990s, I led a cross-cutting team that examined how the agency was doing with its toll-free numbers and document clearinghouses. This first-of-its-kind Management Review of Clearinghouses and Hotlines was an eye-opener. Our hotline inventory alone found the DOE had 404 toll-free lines, and 112 were not being used but the department was still paying for them!

The competing clearinghouses for consumer information on all things energy was vast and hard to account for. Our mystery shopper report demonstrated that consumers who called in for information too often got the run-around – transferred time and time again in a quest for the answer that ended in frustration and dead-ends.

When we visited the Department of Education’s document clearinghouse for EdPubs in Jessup, Maryland, it was a revelation. They made a determined effort to offer the same information online as was available offline. Studies show when consumers get the same information no matter what channel they turn to their confidence in your abilities skyrocket, so the Education Department was on to something here.


At the Department of Education’s clearinghouse they had sweet-talked all the business units into giving up control over document distribution, and had them piled high on the shelves in the warehouse. For the first time, they take an inventory of what they offered the public, and they keep a hard count of what moves out the door and what languishes on the shelves. As the person in charge confided to me, their plan for stage two was to “shoot the dogs and take their money.”

I’m sure they found a lot of money that way. After one year in business, this clearinghouse found less than 20 percent of over 5000 publications were moving more than 50 copies a year. The other 80 percent? Vanity publishing! Imagine all the hours of productivity put into writing, proofing, editing, designing and then printing all this stuff – and nobody wanted it!

As someone who has tin-cupped plenty of bosses for money to fund new ideas, especially innovations for the web, the waste flabbergasted me.


So when web managers plot and plan for the future in the budget crunch, it is time you set your sights on some of the fat found in the offline publishing regimes in your organization. How much is your organization spending for print media? How many copies do you distribute? How much does it cost you to ship materials? If a return on investment cannot be justified, I say go after their funding and move it over to the Web side of the house.

At DOE our report led to the shut-down of many of the phantom toll-free lines. At the same time, we found one of these lines had a name too unique to give up 1-800-dial-DOE, and it became a primary consumer information phone number used to this day to easily direct people to the high-traffic clearinghouses. Unfortunately, the timing wasn’t right for our more ambitious goal of starting a true one-stop-shop as our inspirational colleagues at the Department of Education had done, but a seed was planted.


Today, many federal agencies commit to the goal of seamless service and efficiency. At usa.gov, they are hard-wired into the long-standing Federal Citizen Information Center at Pueblo, Colorado and a unified answer platform at 1-800-FED-INFO cross-promoting content across agency lines.  At USA Services, the Citizen Service Level Inter-agency Committee released a path-breaking report that set standards for service along every channel citizens use to reach their government – walk-ins, phone calls, fulfillment houses and web sites.

As Lisa Welchman wrote in her January 2009 paper Managing the Web in a Recession, it is time for a “zero waste approach.”

“Cutting out unnecessary and ineffective programs and staff and …optimizing the efficiency of internal business processes,” Lisa writes, is a central edict for these times.

I believe websites are some of the most efficient outreach and communications platforms that exist today. More and more organizations have vague goals about “going paperless” or at least reducing waste in print media. The urgency to act presented by the economic meltdown and President Obama’s call to trim agency spending is just the incentive your organization needs to wrestle this beast to the ground and slay it.


If I saw such an opportunity in my organization today, I’d recommend you start as we did at DOE with a management review. The review’s aim is to inventory your operation, and take it from there.  You can’t manage what you don’t count.

With what we know likely lies just beneath the surface in almost every large organization, there is simply no more excuses for not “shooting the dogs and taking their money.” Redirect the savings to reinforce and support your web operations.

So how much money does your organization spend on offline publishing? And how many copies of these materials do you ship to end users vs. put in the closet to gather dust? It is time to find out.