Agenda Management Brings a Positive Evolution for County Processes
Background on Osceola County, Florida
Osceola is located due south of Orlando and is one of the fastest growing counties in the US with more than 244,000 residents. With rapid growth comes a myriad of activities and challenges. Challenge: Maintaining Control While Responsibilities and Population Increase
The 5-commissioner board averages 135-150 meetings per year on top of a number of commission meetings held throughout the week. In an election year, the county holds even more meetings to accommodate the increase in issues.
For the past 18 years, the Clerk of the Board has been Paula Carpenter, a veteran county employee of 23 years. During this time Carpenter has seen her department’s responsibilities grow to encompass every shred of paper related to the agenda process, from beginning to end. In her position, Carpenter is responsible for creating an historical record for the county by compiling County Board agendas, county documents, meeting minutes, and a laundry list of other critical activities.
Each agenda packet averaged 500 pages and 30 copies were needed. That came to 2,250,000 documents that were printed and copied each year [500 pages x 30 copies x 150 meetings per year = 2.25 million]. This rapid consumption of paper was leading to another problem - where to store it. Osceola used a 50,000 square foot storage facility that was running out of room quickly. “Boxes of agendas, minutes and supporting materials were literally stacked to the ceiling,” reported Carpenter. Finding the documents once stored was another story altogether. Solution: Enter SIRE Agenda Plus
The agenda submittal process was time consuming simply due to the 60 departments who can and do submit items for the various meetings.
The approval process for all of these agenda items created its own unique challenges. The typical approval path for an agenda item included 10 departments. Carpenter and her staff had to make and route several copies of the various agenda items and their supporting materials. Keeping track of who had what, where it went next, and getting it approved on time was proving to be a headache-inducing nightmare. Documents were delivered by hand or through inter-office mail.
“We were able to make the process manageable at first--with a lot of elbow grease,” Carpenter said. “But as the county and our responsibilities grew, it became too much for us to effectively manage while attending to our other responsibilities. My staff and I had to work extensive overtime just to keep up with the ever increasing work. When even one person from my staff was out sick or on vacation, it made it extremely difficult to keep up and then to catch up. We needed to find a better way.”
So Carpenter and her team commenced investigating what solutions were available that could help Osceola effectively manage the entire legislative process. Specific technology was needed that would accommodate the somewhat complex routing of items to the appropriate people at the appropriate time. Carpenter’s team was using a number of legacy software applications and didn’t want to make matters worse by pulling in yet another software application that could not communicate with the rest. These legacy software applications included products like the Accella Permits Plus which is used with their permitting process.
In 2002, Paula attended a state clerks’ convention and was introduced to a basic electronic legislative management/agenda system. “I thought it was a revelation—I came back and told people how we could do this electronically, we wouldn’t have to renumber the entire agenda when a new item was added, we wouldn’t have to retype everything--it could be done for us.”
Within a year and after careful scrutiny of all qualified candidates, they chose SIRE Technologies from a field of 17 competitors.
Agenda Plus provided the means wherein those submitting agenda items could do so electronically from their own computer. Submitters were able to complete submittal forms online and attach the appropriate supporting materials electronically – similar to attaching a document to an email. For those documents needing to be scanned, they were scanned directly to the appropriate agenda item.
From there, Agenda Plus automatically routed the items and their supporting materials to the appropriate person at the appropriate time. Regardless of how many different possible paths an item might take, SIRE offered Osceola piece of mind through things like:
- Item delegation for out-of-the-ordinary items
- Vacation / sick leave features accommodating a key person being out of the office
- Visual and textual reports showing exactly on whose desk an item resides and how long its been there
- Automatic notification features that let people know they have an item in their electronic inbox, and follow up notifications to the appropriate people if the item sits there too long
- The ability to do everything needed with the item; add documents, append, stamp, sign, approve, reject, etc. If it can be done in the real world, it can be done in Agenda Plus.
Packet rollup is now a snap and last minute changes to item order no longer require the renumbering of pages or reshuffling of packets. Posting draft, final or approved agendas to the county website is as easy as clicking a button.
Board members can now receive their agenda packets electronically via email or on a CD. This allows them or their staff to review the agenda before the meeting and to make personal comments ahead of time in preparation for the meeting. Unless a board member specifically asks for a hard copy, the agenda is then served up electronically with links to any other important information that is critical in making the decisions that impact the citizens and county business of Osceola County.
A local television station records and edits the meetings to one-hour segments and airs them on a local access channel. Carpenter said this has been hit and miss over the past year and the county is now working to implement SIRE’s new Video Plus program to seamlessly integrate all the video of the meetings with the agenda and get them posted on the County Web site. Citizens and county employees will be able to search for specific video segments that they are interested in.
This is a significant development for the county and its citizens because they can access more readily available and complete information. For instance, this program allows citizens to jump from one portion of a board meeting to another by topic. Video Plus also allows users to view all the supporting materials the board members use to make decisions at the same time as the corresponding video segment. This increases the ability for citizens to become more active participants in their government.
Thanks to the unique architecture of Agenda Plus, users can easily access related documents stored in SIRE from third party applications – giving them a complete history. For example, users can click on a button within Accella Permits Plus and view all relating documents from SIRE without ever leaving the Accella application.
”We have seen a significant reduction in the workload and stress,” said Carpenter. What happened at Osceola County was not a small undertaking. However, Carpenter said it was a well worth the effort to make the changes because it brought improvements across the board.
“We recently conducted a countywide SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis. Of the 60 departments and agencies that use the electronic agenda, 85 percent showed that their greatest strength was in the agenda. This means that they are most familiar and proficient with working with the agenda than other processes at the county.”
By evolving the agenda process, the county has also experienced some unexpected benefits, such as saving tremendous amounts of paper and labor cost as well.
“We used to make 30 copies then took that down to 15. With an average of 500 pages per agenda (with the supporting documents), the county saves 7,500 per meeting and 1,125,000 pages per year”, Carpenter said. With an estimated paper and printing cost of $0.10, that comes to more than $100,000 in annual savings for the county.
The county has also seen savings of how long it takes to create the agenda. “We save about a ¾ of a workday. Now that it is electronic, any items that need to be changed can be done quickly and easily—we used to have to cut and paste, which was a huge pain.”
With everything available online now, the county has seen a huge savings in terms of research requests from businesses and citizens. While the number of requests went up, the actual time spent by county employees on research in fact went down.
The transition to electronic document management and agenda management has been a long road, but the county and its citizens are better enabled to meet the challenges of a growing county with the tools they need to create, manage and deliver information in new and more effective ways.