Move toward a paperless government

The OlympianApril 15, 2014 

The paperless office imagined by early computer advocates has never materialized. But state of Washington government agencies still are trying.

State Archivist Steve Excell will convene a work group of the eight state agencies that generate the most paper records, and the Secretary of State office, which is the repository of those records. They will review methods of retaining records for shorter periods of time, and in electronic formats.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman asked for language in the 2014 supplemental budget to mandate the study because paper-based records are growing faster than the SOS office’s capacity to store them. The Legislature set a goal to reduce the volume of stored paper records by 10 percent by the end of 2016, and another 10 percent by the end of 2018.

The SOS must keep paper records for at least seven years, and in some cases, where documents are pertinent to ongoing litigation, they are kept for up to 70 years.

If state agencies can create more records electronically, rather than in printed form, it will save money as per Gov. Inslee’s Lean initiatives and could improve public access. Electronic documents could be available online and kept for longer periods of time.

The work group will only attempt to change behavior going forward. There are no funds for the expensive and time-consuming process of scanning existing records.

But, according to Excell, state government is doing more online that it used to: growing from nothing 10 years ago to more than 140 million records online today.

That’s a positive trend line for access and transparency.

As an aside, the work group should also seriously consider the groundbreaking work of Suvir Mirchandani, a 14-year-old Pittsburgh-area middle school student. As a science fair project, he proposed his school could save paper and ink costs by printing documents in the thinner Garamond typeface rather than the default Times New Roman.

Mirchandani published his work in the “Journal for Emerging Investigators,” at the encouragement of his teacher, and was subsequently urged to calculate the potential of his theories if applied to the federal government. The answer: $370 million a year.

That won’t address the state’s existing paper storage problems, but Mirchandani’s findings could provide a partial solution in the long-term and meanwhile produce significant savings while embracing environmental sustainability.

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