In the mid-1980s, Michael A. Chipman was a frustrated taxpayer. Annual tax filing was cumbersome—done mostly by hand on paper forms. IRS rules were complex, so many people sought help from professional tax preparation services. But that required collecting lots of paper documents and information before your appointment. Miss a vital piece of documentation or forget a deduction and you could be looking at a penalty or a lower return. And making changes was not easy.
Chipman changed this process forever when he created TurboTax (later acquired by Intuit in the 1990s), a software program that allowed people to manage the tax preparation themselves, easily and electronically. The program stored copies of vital tax documents and allowed customers to make changes and complete the tax preparation process in stages if they wanted to, assessing their progress.
The public safety accreditation process is a bit like tax preparation. You must manage reams of documents—the accrediting body standards, your agency’s policies and procedures, and proofs of compliance. It can quickly become messy and confusing.
The good news is that just like TurboTax, software solutions exist to properly organize your accreditation documents and simplify the accreditation process. Managing your agency’s accreditation electronically can save time and money and improve your chances of a successful audit.
Reasons to Go Electronic
When it comes to managing your public safety agency’s accreditation process, you may already feel a lot like Chipman, the frustrated taxpayer. But it’s not merely a matter of convenience to you. Managing accreditation manually creates real risks for your agency, including:
- Documents are difficult to find and produce for accreditation audits. When your policies, proofs of compliance and policy acknowledgements are saved in paper form—or even stored electronically on computer networks, hard drives or zip drives—you can be left scrambling to find them. Documents can easily be lost or grouped together in unorganized bundles. This creates issues not only for audits, but also when such documents are needed for legal claims or personnel disputes.
- Adds time to an already slow process. Accreditation is always a time-consuming process, but manually matching your policy and procedure content to the accrediting body’s standards is extremely time-consuming. In fact, for the average agency this process can take hundreds of hours. A good accreditation management system will provide this “tagging” for you so it’s easy to quickly identify all policies that address a particular standard.
- Difficult to keep policies and compliance documentation up to date. Accrediting body standards change, which necessitates paperwork changes. Proofs of compliance must be updated for each audit. An electronic system can make this cumbersome task much smoother.
- Different people use different organizational systems. Have you ever sat at someone else’s desk or computer and tried to find something in their files? Public safety agencies that don’t manage their accreditation electronically can experience the same thing. As different people work on the process, different organizational and labeling systems develop, creating rework and confusion. Electronic systems can impose a predetermined structure and process, ensuring consistency as personnel roles change.
The good news is that just like TurboTax, software solutions exist to properly organize your accreditation documents and simplify the accreditation process.
Features to Look For
So now you’re ready to embrace technology and go electronic. What should you look for in an accreditation management system? Following are some feature to consider:
- Do you need policy content or just the housing mechanism? Some accreditation management systems act like general document management systems—they house policies your agency has already developed. Other systems can supply you with the policies as well. This is especially applicable for agencies who are pursuing accreditation for the first time or for agencies whose policies are out of date. Starting fresh with policy content that’s aligned with the accrediting body standards can prevent you from having to rewrite policies to meet the standards.
- Can you easily identify which policies align with which standards? Most auditors want to see proof that your policy content addresses the standards, but often one standard is addressed in multiple policies. Look for the capability to easily produce a report to accomplish such requests, rather than having to manually search through the manual.
- Can you electronically issue policies to your personnel and track acknowledgment? Another requirement of most audits is the ability to show that your personnel have read your policies and acknowledged receipt of them. A good accreditation management system will make this as simple as pushing a few buttons and running an acknowledgment report.
- What support is provided when the standards change? If you’re just purchasing a place to house documents, you need to have a plan in place for tracking changes to standards and making the appropriate changes in your policies and proofs of compliance. If you’re not prepared to do that, look for a system that issues notifications with policy updates when needed.
- Does the system provide an organizational structure that mirrors the structure used by the auditor? Remember the point above about different people using different systems. If the “folder” system is built into the system, you can be confident your documents will be properly organized for easy review by the auditor. And when personnel roles within your organization change, it’s much easier for the new accreditation manager to pick up where the last one left off.
- Does the system provide guidance on what’s needed for proof of compliance? Some systems will provide checklists and other guidance on proofs of compliance developed by subject matter experts with accrediting body experience. These guidelines can help you think through the standard to make sure you have proper compliance documentation and actions.
- What file types are supported for uploads? You may not want to limit yourself to Word documents and PDFs. Some accrediting bodies now allow for or request videos and photos as proofs of compliance.
- Can the system show you how far along you are in the process? Contemporary tax preparation systems feature progress indicators that advance as you move through the process. Accreditation is similar. A system that can show you how far along you are can help you estimate time and labor requirements and prevent you from having to scramble as your audit nears.
- Who’s backing the product? Software and online tools should be designed and supported by technology experts. But when it comes to public safety accreditation, it’s equally important the product be backed by subject matter expertise—public safety professionals who have experience in managing accreditation.
Accreditation can help your agency establish purpose and clarity of policies and procedures, demonstrate organizational excellence to your community, limit liability and gain support from elected officials. But it’s not an easy process. Managing public safety accreditation electronically can relieve pressure on your organization and the personnel responsible for managing accreditation. A good accreditation management system will streamline and organize your accreditation process. And that means you’ll have a lot more time for what matters most: keeping your personnel and your community safe.