The paperless agency: Still just a dream in 2011?

Old dreams die hard. Take the paperless office. A 1975 article in Businessweek was one of the first to use the term to describe the big changes just around the corner as companies replaced typewriters with new technologies such as word processors. Experts predicted that new-fangled electronic documents would banish paper to the recycle bin of no return.

George Pake, head of Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center, told the Businessweek reporter at the time, “I don't know how much hard copy [printed paper] I'll want in this world."


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Turns out it could be a lot. Thirty-six years later, nearly four out of five organizations still say going paperless is a priority, yet half expect to print more paper in the future than they do now, according to a recent survey by industry trade association CompTIA.

Does that mean the paperless office is an impossible dream? There is no question that many organizations have made a lot of progress in automating paper-laden business processes, boosting their productivity and doing the environment a big favor in the process.

But many of those gains have been cancelled out by office workers who refuse to cut back on all the paper copies and printouts they make. A recent study of federal printing habits by printer manufacturer Lexmark found that 35 percent of office printing jobs were unnecessary, and nine out of 10 feds admitted that they print more paper than they use.

So where have federal leaders been while users have been going all Gutenberg on them? Unfortunately, they have been classic enablers.

The IT staff doesn’t say no to requests for new printers when someone else is picking up the tab, and upper managers are usually too focused on other things to notice how all those invoices for stand-alone printers, paper and toner are adding up.

“Print services [are] one of the last remaining unmanaged IT expenses,” said Alan Weaver, vice president and chief marketing officer at PrinTree, a managed print services provider.

In short, no one has owned the problem. However, staying in denial is getting harder. A pair of executive orders — 13423 and 13514 — aim to increase the government’s energy efficiency and reduce its environmental impact by holding agencies more accountable in achieving goals in those areas. Better print management is part of the program.

This fall, the General Services Administration will introduce a PrintWise campaign with a seven-step guide for lowering print costs. If the changes are adopted across the government, GSA estimates it would save $330 million. GSA also unveiled 11 blanket purchase agreements for printer products and managed print services that could save as much as $600 million in the next four years.

It's hard to say whether those eye-popping numbers are realistic, but if the experience of the Census Bureau is any indication, taking the printer problem seriously can yield savings.

The bureau's year-old initiative could easily serve as a print management playbook for others. Its measures include conducting an inventory of all printer assets and current printer use; removing unnecessary stand-alone printers and underused networked devices; strategically locating new energy-efficient network printers; and setting printer defaults to black-and-white, draft-quality, two-sided output.

From May to August, the bureau's headquarters saved an estimated $120,000 just by changing the printer default settings, said Patricia Musselman, chief of the bureau's LAN Technology Support Office.

Those stubborn dreams of a totally paperless office might be unrealistic, but that doesn’t mean agencies can’t do better when it comes to paper consumption and print expenditures. Musselman illustrated that kind of pragmatism in the way she and some colleagues pitched a proposal in the Census Bureau’s employee suggestion program.

“We submitted something called the ‘Less Paper Office’ since the paperless office is unattainable in the near term,” she said.

About the Author

John Zyskowski is a senior editor of Federal Computer Week. Follow him on Twitter: @ZyskowskiWriter.

Reader Comments

Mon, Oct 31, 2011 walter Washington

I work for a government construction and maintenance group, and we have engineers reviewing actual hard copy plans and specs. We don't have the means to recieve these documents electronically, and reviewing full size building drawings on a 17 inch computer monitor is not ideal. We also don't have the ability to recieve contractor bids on many of our larger projects. One of the projects we had last year, generated a stack of full size drawings 5 feet tall, with all the copies required for review by our office. The spec packages were at least twice that tall, but only 8 1/2 by 11 inches instead of the 2 by 3 foot drawings packages.

Mon, Oct 31, 2011 walter Washington

Part of the problem is government managers that want a hard copy of everything. One supervisor I can name has an extra large wraparound desk filled with documents 5 or more deep, none of which he has time to read. Legal also discourages going paperless. We are required to sign financial disclosure forms, training certificates and many other documents on hard copy for their files, because they don't believe that electronic signatures are binding enough. At least we don't have to sign in blood any more. Executives in my office, commonly go to meetings with a stack of papers, and come back with more.

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