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State and Local Governments: Time to Get Rid of Fax Machines

Fax machines have largely disappeared from private-sector offices, yet remain in many state and local government agencies. Eliminating them will not only save money, but also push forward digital services.

old fax machine on a table
Faxes have mostly disappeared from the private sector, yet they have stubbornly remained a fixture for many government agencies. While public agencies are notorious for their slow rate of technological change, the failure to stop using this obsolete technology is one of the more egregious examples of this phenomenon. Given the apparent reluctance of many government agencies to fully relinquish their fax machines, state and local CIOs should set a firm date by which all agencies must stop using faxes.

While the precursors of today’s fax machines trace their roots back to the 19th century, with early prototypes emerging not long after Samuel Morse invented the telegraph, it was not until the 1980s that organizations widely adopted fax technology. Most of the growth occurred because the technology matured: In 1974, it would take about six minutes to transmit a one-page document; a decade later, engineers had cut the transmission time down to less than 10 seconds. With these relatively fast speeds, sending faxes became the go-to solution for transmitting documents, especially the many forms that are the bread and butter of government data processing.

Today, fax numbers are still featured prominently on many government websites, but in many cases, these digits do not serve any clear purpose — they are the vestigial limbs from an older, less-evolved form of the agency. When people do use them, they are often the communication channel of last resort, a sign that something has already gone terribly wrong in delivering a government service. For example, one Virginia resident recently chronicled the absurd lengths she had to go through to obtain unemployment benefits — after attempts to resolve the issue in person, over the phone and online failed, she found herself having to track down a fax machine to send in her paperwork.

What is interesting about fax machines is that they are not hard to replace, so the excuses not to do so are extremely flimsy. The only real purpose of a fax machine is to send and receive paper documents. Unlike other outdated enterprise technologies that might be tightly integrated into existing back-office processes — think legacy COBOL systems — switching from receiving documents by fax to receiving scanned documents by email presents almost no real change in workflow and certainly more people have access to email at home and work than fax machines.

While email is a logical stepping stone for eliminating fax machines, it is often possible to make significant improvements in workflow through other upgrades. Typically the information contained in faxed documents must be transferred to some other system, often through a manual, inefficient and error-prone process. Replacing faxes with web-based forms allows agencies to collect information more efficiently. Indeed, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, many state health departments struggled to produce timely and accurate statistics about infection rates and deaths because their offices were flooded with faxes since they had not transitioned to an online reporting system.

Some government agencies have finally decided to pull the plug on fax machines — at least outside the United States. In March, the finance minister in Ontario, Canada, directed all of the province’s agencies to eliminate their 1,500 fax lines by the end of the year. In June, Taro Kono, Japan’s Minister for Administrative Reform and Regulatory Reform, issued an edict to all government ministries to stop using faxes by the end of the month. And earlier this year, the German government announced it would eliminate its approximately 8,000 fax machines.

It is past time for state and local governments to draw a line in the sand and similarly commit to eliminating fax machines. Not only will this save money — eliminating printing expenses, telephone service fees and maintenance costs — but it will also push agencies to further digitize their services and move toward web-based data collection that eliminates the need for scanning documents or manually re-entering data and makes it easier for individuals to submit information from their computers or mobile devices. Fax machines have served a valuable role over the past few decades, but the time has come to retire them to the dustbin of history.

Government Technology is a sister site to Governing. Both are divisions of e.Republic.
Daniel Castro is the vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and director of the Center for Data Innovation. Before joining ITIF, he worked at the Government Accountability Office where he audited IT security and management controls.
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