PDFs Are No Good — How, And Why, Governments Are Going Digital

For foes of paper cuts, recent news from Hawaii should offer encouragement: A six-month test designed to showcase the appeal of making state government more digital led to a 20 percent reduction in paper use, which translates into one million sheets of paper.

Nine state departments took part in the test, which ran from January through June, and which represents one of the latest efforts in the ongoing, if uneven, worldwide move toward digitalized government.

During the test, those state departments enabled employees to access more documents electronically instead of via paper copies, and otherwise discouraged the use of physical copies. Based on the results of the test, the state calculates that over three years, those results would translate into savings of $500,000 and 10 million sheets of paper. This test involving the state’s executive branch follows a “paperless initiative” for the state Senate, which kicked off in 2008 and has resulted in a 60 percent reduction in paper use for that body.

Digital Savings

Making the move from analog to digital in governments around the world could save an estimated $3.5 trillion per year thanks to productivity gains and other savings, according to one recent McKinsey analysis.

“Through digital transformations, agencies can integrate cutting-edge technologies (such as cloud, mobile, artificial intelligence and automation) and modern management practices (for instance, agile software development) to dramatically improve services and outcomes for constituents,” its report said.

Just the relatively simple task — emphasis on “relatively” — of moving various governmental websites to gov.uk resulted in approximately $772 million in savings between 2011 and 2016, according to the U.K.’s Government Digital Service, according to the report.

PDF Woes

It’s not only changing the digital locations of websites that makes up the work of moving from analog to digital, a topic regularly covered by PYMNTS, including a recent look at the transition in the construction industry.

That same U.K. department, for instance, is in the midst of a push to persuade government employees to eschew PDF in favor of HTML. The reasons include the difficulty of copying and pasting PDF content into other documents, its crankiness when it comes to playing nice with browser extensions and other digital tools and how it promotes analog-centric thinking, which can gum up the process of government.

“Users are more likely to download a PDF and continue to refer to it and share it offline,” the U.K. Government Digital Service said. “They may not expect the content in the PDF to change and might not check the website to get the latest information. HTML documents encourage people to refer to the website for the latest version.”

According to the department, it intends to discourage use of PDFs in large part by building “functionality for users to automatically generate accessible PDFs from HTML documents. This would mean that publishers will only need to create and maintain one document, but users will still be able to download a PDF if they need to.”

Digital Czar

Having a person in charge of digitization also can help — at least that’s the view of Canada, which this summer appointed its first ever minister for digital government.

Scott Brison, who retained his post as president of country’s Treasury Board — a cabinet-level agency that reviews and approves federal government spending — will work to “make sure the government’s digital services work better for Canadians across the country,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Brison’s job includes “improving government services across digital channels like Canada.ca, which has long faced criticism for being over-budget and past deadline.”

An investment banker and entrepreneur, Brison gave a TED talk during which he criticized the digital skills of governments. “If Apple can design something so intuitive that four-year-olds can find exactly what they want in 40 seconds, why is it that governments still design websites that grownups can’t navigate?” he asked. “We can’t be a Blockbuster government serving a Netflix citizen.”

State and Local Laggards

That can be easier said than done, of course.

A glimpse at attitudes common in U.S. state and local governments shows why. A Deloitte survey found that 73 percent of “state and local government respondents believed that their digital capabilities were behind the private sector.” Beyond that, 90 percent of state chief information officers — or their equivalents — said that 20 percent of their systems needed modernization, with two of three CIOs putting that figure at 40 percent, according to a different survey.

“In the second decade of the 21st century, an alarming amount of critical state government business depends on IT systems that date back to the age of punch cards and green screens,” read the report associated with those survey results. “Reliance on obsolete technology can open government agencies to potentially serious perils.”

Digital Strategies

Among the remedies?

Like the U.K. — and Canada, perhaps — the solution could be to elevate a department or person to a high level of authority, a central voice for the analog-to-digital work that faces virtually all governmental units in existence. That’s not always as easy in the United States as in other countries, given the U.S. concept of strong state and local authority. But that does not make it impossible. New York City, for instance, is “creating a master service agreement (MSA) for several digital studios in order to provide design capabilities,” the report said.

Another strategy calls for refactoring — that is, replacing one code module at a time, which basically translates old-fashioned, legacy computer language into modern digital communication. That limits disruption and frustration among end users, and can save costs. A typical state or local government refactoring project can take up to two years, according to experts.

Among government and tech types, there has been a decade-or-longer push to view citizens as just another type of consumer, one using taxpayer-funded services instead of buying retail products. That trend may or may not hold. No matter what, however, governments are responding, however slowly, to demands of digitally trained citizen-consumers, a response that could intensify if more cost savings are realized and documented.