A Conversation with Assembly Member Al Muratsuchi: Going Paperless in the California Legislature

by Lisa Lindgren

posted on 02-06-2018

Elected officials are using less paper and communicating electronically. But how long does the transition take? Does it actually save time for staff? And what’s the first step?

Adobe sat down with Al Muratsuchi, who represents the 66th California Assembly District in the State Assembly, and his staff member Pam Sheppard on their efforts to reduce paper and embrace technology in their office.

Q: What inspired you to reduce your paper consumption?

Assemblymember: All the wasted paper. During the legislative process, we waste a tremendous amount of paper. Of course, it’s important to communicate, but in this day and age when we can communicate electronically, we—with Pam Sheppard’s leadership—have been sending the message to the state capital community that we only accept legislative alerts electronically, rather than by paper. It’s a gradual process but we are making significant progress.

Q: When did your office begin to make this move?

Assemblymember: The end of session last year, in 2017.

Q: What did this decision mean to you and your staff?

Assemblymember: Well, from what I hear from my staff, we’re all happy that we’re able to work more efficiently and effectively. At the same time, even though we practice what we preach in terms of living and working sustainably and cutting down on the use of excess paper, of course, we are not completely paperless. We do continue to receive correspondence, especially from constituents, by mail as well as electronically. But again, I think it’s a small but significant statement we’re making in our capital community here that we can work efficiently and effectively by going paperless.

Q: Are most people catching on and sending messages electronically now?

Assemblymember: It’s an ongoing process, but word is getting around that we ask all the lobbyists and all the organizations involved in the legislative process to send their documents electronically.

Q: What technology did you rely on to make this change, and what tasks did you replace?

Assemblymember: Well, of course, there are wonderful programs and apps that Adobe and others provide. But it starts with using email and all the attach-document programs that are available, whether it’s from Adobe, Microsoft, or other reputable companies.

Q: Have these changes attributed to any measurable time savings or increased productivity in your office?

Pam: Yes, yes tons of time! [Laughs] As you know, I am the primary paper mover, and I will say it’s made me much more efficient.

Q: You said that you used to get stacks [of paper]?

Pam: Yes. Especially by the time you empty the fax machine and get the mail—each day I could have a stack of paper a foot high, and we have to go through it all. Now instead, if it’s all in one email inbox, it’s easier for me to read, sort, organize, and send responses.

Assemblymember: Easy to forward, too.

Pam: Very much. The focus changes. It’s not about moving papers around anymore—it’s about improving each communication itself. Things become much more efficient and you’re able to focus on the mission at hand.

Q: Following up on that, has the experience improved how you connect with your constituents?

Assemblymember: The key words are effective and efficient. We are communicating more effectively and efficiently through electronic communication and that is helping us be more responsive to our constituents.

Q: Excellent. What kind of efficiencies have you seen with this change?

Assemblymember: We’re saving a lot of money on paper.

Pam: Absolutely. For example, just one task the other day: we got a letter of support for one of our bills. I got it electronically. I immediately forwarded it to our chief of staff. She, with the click of a button, could put it in our electronic folder for that bill. Whereas before if it came in paper, I would have to hand it to her, she would then have to go scan it or copy it and put it in a hard binder. So, it was literally a couple of clicks for each of us, and then it was captured where it needed to be captured for reference for the legislative process.

Q: And [previously], probably at the end of session you just dumped and dumped tons of paper.

Pam: Exactly.

Assemblymember: Yes. I think the best example is the saved paper from faxes. A lot of special interest groups just want to do the fax blast and fax for excessively long documents (sometimes over 30 pages), tying up our fax machine. Now, we’re saving paper, saving fax ink, freeing up our machines. It’s just, again, more efficient to communicate electronically. It’s great.

Q: Were there challenges along the way to note?

Pam: Just communicating it without upsetting anybody. I’m not going to argue with anybody who brings me a piece of paper. But I will offer them my business card and ask them if it’s available electronically. And most people are very agreeable because most things that come in paper form originate electronically. I think the struggle is just being kind and messaging the change politely.

Assemblymember: I think it involves a culture change over time. The business of our state capital has been conducted with activist and interest groups passing out paper and dropping off paper from office to office for decades. But we are sending the message clearly with a sign on the door that we are encouraging people to build the habit to send their message electronically, rather than by dumping reams of paper on us. It’s better for our staff, reduces manual labor and errors overall, it helps our environment, and everyone gets responses faster.

Q: Just two more questions. What advice would you give to interested organizations that want to go paperless?

Pam: Be patient. It’s a cultural shift.

Assemblymember: Yes, patience is key. Keep getting the word out that email is your preferred method of communication.

Q: Have you seen any other members now that want to do this in their office?

Pam: Yes, we heard some stories. At the end of session, we got teased a little bit because we heard that other offices were trying to attempt it. But, there could be a staff alignment issue. I’m personally willing to take this challenge of “going paperless” on, because for me, the benefits it brings are worth it. But I think some staff think, “I don’t want my inbox flooded, I don’t want to have the onus all on me.” I think some offices, with how the staff is configured, there’s an issue with staff trying to figure out how to flow [going paperless] through a given office. So, I don’t know if there are other programs that can make it feel less daunting for some staff members, because I think that might be one of the sticking points for some offices really taking it head on.

Q: Old habits die hard.

Pam: Very hard.

Assemblymember: Yeah, I mean, as a scheduler, Pam is the gatekeeper, not only of people who come into the office but people who submit paper and documents.

Q: She already has the hardest job in the building, for sure. Any last comments?

Pam: Thanks for recognizing that. I think highlighting it will help the trend catch on.

Topics: Government