Despite ongoing digitalisation, a great deal of business still gets done on paper in both the public and private sectors. Although the percentage of paper records is declining, a third of respondents in a survey indicated that they are currently storing over 100 000 boxes of paper records, and some have 500 000 or more.

By Takalane Khashane, MD of Iron Mountain South Africa

In 2022, the Department of Home Affairs, as the custodian of the National Population Register, launched a project to digitise 350-million paper records dating back to 1895. The department plans to convert the records to electronic format to ensure that they are secure and easily accessible for service delivery purposes.

For companies that still have large inventories of paper records, cleaning up these records is a priority. The main benefits of managing paper records through secure storage, digitisation and destruction are cutting costs and reducing risks like theft, flooding or fire.

However, digital transformation, especially regarding the digitisation of documents and data, is not a straightforward journey – unless you are a young company that was built digitally from the ground up. In many organisations the digitisation journey has to be combined with a clear direction and change management interventions.

Long-established organisations, like numerous public sector institutions, cannot jump from physical to digital in one step. Many of them are still heavily paper-dependent. Paper is tangible but paper-record dependency suffocates innovation and business optimisation.

The good news is that the increasing pressure for digital accessibility and cross-departmental connectivity have pushed digitisation of paper records higher up on the priority list.

In the last few years, the South African Revenue Service (SARS) has implemented several innovative digital transformation initiatives to enhance the user experience and maximise revenue collection.

This has led to an increase in revenue collection and a decrease in physical branch visits by customers. SARS is regarded as a modern state-owned enterprise that leverages technology and tools to help provide clarity and certainty, and make it easy and seamless for taxpayers to transact with it.

Meeting compliance obligations

Before an organisation starts implementing its digital strategy, it first needs to know what it has and where it is stored by performing an inventory audit. After conducting an audit, it is important to securely destroy the documents that are no longer needed.

Organisations need to not only meet internal operational requirements, but external regulatory ones too, such as the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) that places the responsibility of implementing controls and policies on organisations to ensure compliance.

Retaining records in any format past their compliance requirement — known as over-retention — increases an organisation’s costs and elevates its risks. Therefore, identifying records that are eligible for destruction is a major driver behind records clean-up projects.

Any data security protocol should account for the secure storage and disposal of paper documentation. When the time comes for older records to be digitised and physical documents are ready for disposal, they should be shredded following privacy and data compliance regulations like POPIA, to avoid penalties, fines or legal action. This means keeping the retention schedule up to date so organisations can legally dispose of information when it is no longer required.

Navigating the increasingly complex regulatory landscape can be challenging when the requirements are continuously changing. Additionally, organisations lack automated tools to enable employees to understand what’s required of them.

Last year we introduced our Policy Centre, a cloud-based retention and privacy policy management platform that provides a user-friendly way for organisations to know their obligations and show compliance. It enables organisations to keep their retention and privacy policies current and reduce the risk of fines, save on information storage costs by confidently disposing of information, and offers quick and easy access to the right information when needed.

Public sector organisations can reduce their risks by identifying and defensibly destroying records that are no longer needed to meet regulatory compliance. On the cost side, tens of thousands — if not millions — of rands can be saved when these records are defensibly destroyed. The budgets, as well as the physical space required to store and preserve these paper records — whether onsite or offsite — can now be reallocated.

With the volume of worldwide data expected to reach 175 zettabytes by 2025, and substantial penalties for data and information breaches, knowing how to properly manage and protect records and data is more critical and mandatory than ever before.

A recent IBM report revealed that the average cost of a public sector data breach has increased from $1,93-million in 2021 to $2,07-million in 2022. Keeping records beyond retention requirements exposes organisations to security gaps – including fire and flood, and increases the possibility of violating privacy rights and losing public trust.

Driving data accessibility and productivity

Data risks are often unintentional, associated with human behaviour and usually driven by seeking improved efficiency and productivity.

To achieve continued service delivery and offer new services to citizens, public sector organisations need to improve the productivity of their employees. Technology holds the key to implementing digital ways of working and managing data, which in turn can drive productivity.

For example, moving from physical to digital can be the difference between trying to sort through 500 files in a box to find a crucial piece of information, or making a quick query on easily accessible digital data.

Our Economist Impact research revealed that nearly 76% of business leaders are increasing investment in technology to facilitate data and information exchange across teams and almost 75% are increasing investment in cloud-based technology to improve workflow automation and business processes.

Central to effectively converting data to actionable insights is an organisation-wide information lifecycle management framework that is failproof and comprehensive across how information is collected, used, stored and then safely disposed. This strategy maps data throughout its lifecycle to be able to better manage and optimise its value. The data then evolves from a mere business record to a vital asset driving business performance and decision-making.

It is important for the public sector to partner with organisations that will not only walk with them in their digitalisation journey and help them manage and extract insights but also ensure that their important documents are stored as part of their physical record retention and archive storage strategy.

By converting paper records to digital, public sector organisations are able to free up the information locked within, and drive productivity, efficiency and new approaches to improve service delivery to citizens.