The Persistence of Paper

Despite all the advances in online services, e-governments are still stuck in the paper chase.
by | September 2006

Mark Stencel

Mark Stencel was previously GOVERNING's executive editor and deputy publisher.

Helping my aunt finalize her recent retirement from a county social services job in North Carolina gave me an opportunity to marvel at the resilience of one of the greatest afflictions of public governance: paperwork. My aunt had printed out a form she downloaded from the state retirement system's Web site and filled in the blanks with a pen. All she needed me to do was mail or fax it for her. The state had no option for submitting this information online.

Having recently gone through a similar experience myself with the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, which required me to download a form and then fax or mail the completed document to Richmond, the promise of digital government seemed surprisingly out of reach. Instead of ushering in a new form of efficient, paperless administration, e-government was simply delivering the same old government forms.

Sure, Web sites enable many government transactions to take place online. But an online citizen doesn't have to browse far to find a government form that still must be printed out and sent or hand- delivered to an office, where the information will be retyped into a back-end computer system, hopefully without introducing any errors.

Many factors contribute to this archaic way of doing business, including some outdated laws and regulations that still mandate paper documents or written signatures. But much of the responsibility belongs to the ubiquitous Portable Document Format or PDF--the methadone in governments' addiction to paper.

In the years since Adobe Systems Inc. introduced the format, PDFs have become the default standard for delivering electronic reproductions of printed documents--particularly wordy, highly formatted tomes that are meant to be read offline. Adobe began offering its free PDF Reader in 1994, the same year the IRS provided its first PDF tax forms. Over the next dozen years, PDFs and the programs that allow users to easily read and create them became almost universally available. The addition of interactive form fields eventually allowed users to fill out a PDF on their computer screens-- as if the printed document had simply been rolled into a typewriter.

These conveniences accelerated distribution, reduced some printing and postage costs and eliminated some mistakes. But they did not fundamentally transform government business processes or back-end systems. Humans at office counters and in mail rooms were still receiving and sorting paper for other humans, who were then reading and retyping the documents.

Recent versions of the PDF now function like other strictly Web-based forms--the kind one might use to instantly make an online purchase with a credit card, for instance. Using Extensible Markup Language (XML), these newer PDFs interact directly with back-end computer systems.

The new capabilities are a big advance but will need time to take hold, especially in the government sector. To start, legal and regulatory requirements still need to be reviewed in many places. (Does that form really have to be notarized?) But the bigger challenge is getting people to use these features. Some capabilities, such as applying digital signatures to PDF documents, are still far too complicated for most ordinary computer users. As PDF expert Duff Johnson of Document Solutions Inc. put it in a recent article, "no wonder most people are still hitting 'print' and grabbing a ballpoint."

In addition, many users just don't have the right software to use the latest PDF features--and downloading and installing upgrades, even one of Adobe's free PDF Readers, is still a challenge for many computer users.

Worst of all, some not-so-new PDF capabilities have yet to take hold. The Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, for example, offers many forms that users can fill out on their computer screens before printing them. But even after three years of posting such documents, public information officer Kevin Malone reports that "the vast majority of forms we get are handwritten."

For better or worse, the popularity of the PDF comes from the ability of these digital files to look and act like paper. Now that these files can do more than paper ever could, the print button may be holding this venerable file format back--and the potential of digital government along with it.


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