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The Death of Government Paper Records?

Last week, the President released a memorandum for Federal agencies to manage all permanent electronic records in an electronic format by the end of 2019, each agency due to develop and begin to implement their plans by the end of 2013. Following similar themes of open government and transparency, POTUS’s memorandum states that the objectives are “to promote openness and accountability and reduce costs in the long term” in the slow march towards a digital government.

While we can all applaud the goals of cost-savings and efficiency, is this vision of a paperless federal government by 2019 realistic? Many federal agencies and offices have embraced digital communications and public accessibility to online records, but the government is also made up of slow moving behemoths that can be resistant to the idea of change, especially when talking about anything made digitally available to the public.

To all of the govies out there, do you think your agency could rise to the challenge to meet this 2019 goal or is this memorandum just another starry-eyed mandate?

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David Dejewski

I can offer this: a couple of decades ago, military hospitals did away with a lot of paper. We used to store literally truck loads of tri-color forms, lab chits, standard forms, etc. We shifted to electronic record keeping.

The old paper storage spaces were converted to office space, clinical space, or storage space for other materials. The paper forms fell out of training curriculums.

The only people left in the hospital that knew how to fill out those forms were aging and leaving the system through attrition. No one under a certain age knew what the old system looked like. Then Contingency Operations came into vogue. Suddenly, we wanted a backup system in case the computers failed. Studies were done.

We concluded that we literally needed tractor trailer trucks full of paper documents to satisfy the physical aspect of the problem. They were expensive and perishable. Training wasn’t available. Facilities weren’t available. Leadership was confused as to how the system would work. Manpower was confused about how it would work. The printing companies that used to print these forms dumped their old plates for making them. Everyone had moved on.

I don’t believe a non-electronic solution was ever implemented. I know we have backup electronic copies of things, but a good EMP pulse or a hand grenade dropped in the right places would neutralize those.

I don’t endorse staying on an old paper-based system. It is wasteful and inefficient. We just need to be careful if we start thinking that going back is an easy affair.

Chris Cairns

This brings me back to my good old economics courses. At some point, there marginal benefit is less than the marginal cost, so economics tells us that digitizing everything is not the best use of resources.

Terrence (Terry) Hill

It’s about time! I have been an advocate for going paperless since the early 90s. Not only is this 2019 goal attainable, it is imperative that we erradicate any remnants of paper, wherever they remain. Over the last 30 years, we have seen paychecks, timecard, leave and earnings statements, tax forms, benefit forms, medical records, pictures, books, magazines, newspapers, voting records, and hundreds of other documents being digitized. No matter what, there is now an app for that.

If you still have file cabinets, printers, fax machines (do we stll have these), copiers, file folders, and stacks of paper boxes, you are behind the times. Go green, save money and space, and improve your processes. Do it today! Don’t wait until 2019.


I love the idea & makes so much sense for costs/environment reasons- the biggest question I have around it is “the teeth” to it in enforcing

John Simpson

While reducing paper costs is a no-brainer in finding ways to save money in your budget, this kind of action will also need to put aside money for extensive training and IT costs. In the long run, this is the way of the future and it is better to make that long term investment sooner rather than later. The question is whether the government can make a compelling cost/benefit argument beyond this memorandum to all agencies and if the Executive can provide the necessary leadership to push this forward.

Eric Koch

John, this is interesting. I was actually getting ready to start a discussion on this, but glad you were able to and get some good dialogue going here. This is a good thing for obvious reasons, but to be able to have all federal agencies in compliance with this by 2019 may be a stretch.

We have a client, Pitney Bowes Management, who actually wrote a response to this “2019” article the other day on some of the benefits with digitizing. http://pbmsinnovates.com/gov/white-house-gets-serious-about-digital-records/

The article even references an earlier post that discussed the VA and how paper was “literally bringing down the house” as the floors were caving from too much pressure on the amount of paper. This is a problem that shouldn’t be taken lightly as a sea of paper like that has a direct impact on efficiency.

Thanks for sharing.