Kath Ryans, MIS training consultant from the Cambridgeshire County Council ICT Service explains how paperless finance has become a reality across the authority’s schools and academies.
PublicTechnology: Why the move to paperless?
Kath Ryans: The pressure on local authorities and schools to go paperless is growing. Paperless offices have been an ambition for many years, but until now few have taken the leap. Recently, the government has put targets in place for the NHS to be paperless by 2018, driving the agenda forward, and local authorities are set to follow.
With 24,000 schools and 8.2 million pupils in the UK, moving to paperless makes sense, saving time, money and resources, the savings to be made from the education sector alone could be quite extensive.
Leading the way, Cambridgeshire County Council’s education ICT Service has taken the decision to encourage schools to become paperless, starting with the management of school finances.
PT: Why look at finances first?
KR: It could be debated that other areas in education administration use more paper, but one of the reasons finances are being looked at first is to improve the efficiency within our growing number of academies. Academies have heightened reporting requirements, which can put an additional administrative burden on finance and business managers.
It’s not just academies that are under increasing pressure, as maintained schools also strive to tighten up financial controls. Cambridgeshire’s schools employ thousands of staff and are attended by nearly 80,000 students so to maintain our excellent record it was important to make financial management processes easier for all our schools.
PT: How did you plan the way forward?
KR: We knew that the way forward was to switch to paperless, but we were also aware that to make the move to electronic records as seamless as possible, our planning process had to be accurate, realistic and in an achievable timescale.
PT: How did you ensure you selected the right system?
KR: To select the best system for our schools, we took a magnifying glass to all of our existing procedures. Our aim was to understand what we wanted the system to do for us and identify the real problems which needed solving. With over 250 schools, academies and other organisations involved in the management of finances, for us, a priority was a flexible system which would centralise all records electronically.
One area where we particularly needed this flexibility was in providing access to the system. We needed to enable varying levels of access for the different job roles. The school bursar needs full access and print authority for budgets, for example, whereas the head of IT may simply want to check what budget spend is available for classroom resources.
With many of our schools receiving increasing numbers of invoices electronically, their existing system, Capita’s SIMS FMS, hosted by Cambridgeshire ICT Service, was enhanced to provide storage of all finance documents alongside the associated order record.
PT: How did the transition to paperless work?
KR: Before the project went ahead, we did a complete review of how incoming paperwork was dealt with. It is natural to want to have information and the documents you need at your fingertips, so we had to make sure that this ease of access was provided if we wanted people to buy-in to the change.
There was an element of retraining for all employees during the implementation of the new solution. We wanted them to see how incoming paperwork would be dealt with and how live documents would be handled across our schools.
Although 60 schools have now requested to pilot the system, two of the first schools in Cambridge to move to paperless were Upwood Primary and Bury Primary.
PT: How does it make a difference in the schools?
KR: One of Cambridgeshire’s schools is spread across three different sites, covering 60 miles. This is where the new system really comes into its own, it saves a huge amount of time as the multi-site business manager can log in via remote access to each site and see all the supporting financial documents.
Another school seeing great benefits from using SIMS FMS is Upwood Primary School, which estimates that going paperless saved two days a week in administration costs, plus savings on stamps, paper and envelopes.
PT: What are the future plans for the paperless initiative?
KR: The feedback we are getting from schools is that it helps them to become more efficient. They are in control of their finances and everything is stored centrally, providing a full financial picture at a moment’s notice. The way forward is definitely paperless and we’ll now be looking at how we can make further improvements to our processes over the next year.