Reducing paper stockpiles

A woman is seated at a desk in an office. There is a huge pile of loose papers behind her, reaching towards the ceiling. Some of the papers are falling onto and over the front of her desk.

Government policy requires Australian Government agencies to reduce stockpiles of paper records and transition towards fully digital information and records management. This means reducing the reliance on paper-based record systems.

Storing records for longer than necessary costs money and decreases efficiency. For paper records, costs include managing onsite or off-site storage facilities or using a commercial storage provider. Other less obvious costs include filing cabinets or shelving, and extra time needed to locate information. Keeping records for longer than necessary may also increase the risk of inappropriate disclosure, and legal discovery or freedom of information requests.

The benefits of reducing paper stockpiles, and thereby reducing your storage footprint, include:

  • reducing costs of offsite storage
  • freeing up onsite space for other purposes
  • reducing costs for items such as filing cabinets and shelving
  • money saved by reducing the amount of material being stored can be used to improve other aspects of information and records management in your agency.

There are three main approaches to reducing paper stockpiles

Dispose of records that are due for destruction or transfer

For practical purposes, all information created, sent and received in the course of carrying out the business of your agency should be considered a Commonwealth record. However, not all information and records need to be kept forever. Destruction of Commonwealth records is regulated by the National Archives in accordance with the Archives Act 1983. Effective information and records management includes regularly disposing of information and records that are no longer needed and legally can be destroyed or transferred.

The Archives issues records authorities that identify which records need to be transferred to the Archives for permanent retention and specify the minimum amount of time that other records need to be kept.

Under the normal administrative practice provision of the Archives Act, records that are duplicates, unimportant or of a short-term and facilitative nature can be destroyed routinely without further permission from the Archives.

If your agency has records relating to functions that have been transferred to another agency, you should transfer the records to that agency. See our advice on handling administrative change for more information.

Selectively scan existing paper records

If there is a business need to access older paper-based information, there may be a case to digitise the information, incorporate it into current business information systems and use it in place of the paper originals. This should only be done after a risk assessment and analysis of the costs and benefits have been completed.

In many cases, the original documents can be destroyed after scanning, subject to some exclusions and conditions and provided quality assurance has been completed. The General Records Authority (31) for source (including original) records after they have been copied, converted or migrated provides more information.

Our guidance on Digitising accumulated physical records provides advice on practical considerations for selectively scanning stockpiles of paper records.

Limit the creation of new paper records

To prevent paper stockpiles increasing, agencies need to limit the creation of new paper records. There are three ways to approach this.

Digital information should be managed digitally

If information in digital formats is printed to paper, it loses valuable context, it is less easily accessed by those who need it, and it will incur ongoing costs for physical storage. Less obvious are the costs of printing, paper and file covers. Our advice on digital continuity provides guidance on managing digital information for as long as it is needed.

Where possible, digital information should be kept and managed digitally in business systems with the necessary functionality. International Standard ISO 16175 - Principles and Functional Requirements for Records in Electronic Office Environments provides guidance on appropriate functionality.

Scan incoming paper documents

Most agencies still receive some business information as paper documents. However, there is no compelling reason for the majority of incoming paper documents to be retained in their original form. There are only a very limited range of circumstances where information needs to be retained on paper, usually due to specific legal or security constraints. If it is scanned, the digital information can be accessed easily by multiple users in different locations and the information can be incorporated into digital business processes.

See our advice on scanning incoming paper for more information.

The General Records Authority 31 source (including original) records after they have been copied, converted or migrated provides authorisation to dispose of source or original records that have been scanned, subject to some exclusions and conditions.

Review business processes

One way for agencies to reduce their reliance on paper is to review business processes and information flows to determine where paper-based practices can be replaced by digital practices.

Acquiring a new business system, or redeveloping an existing one, provides an opportunity to review business processes and improve efficiency and effectiveness, including reducing reliance on paper. International Standard ISO 16175 - Principles and Functional Requirements for Records in Electronic Office Environments provides guidance on specifications for new or upgraded systems.

Further information

For information about managing digital information and records, see the guidance on Digital Continuity.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019