The Air Force goes paperless

Instead, since Jan. 1, the service has delivered these documents worldwide on CD-ROM,
bulletin board systems and the World Wide Web. No one seems to miss the paper, said Gary
L. McMullin, the Air Force's director of departmental publishing.

McMullin's staff at Bolling Air Force Base, Washington, squeezes the complete text of
all the documents and forms onto one CD-ROM-so far-each month, then delivers it to the
Government Printing Office for duplication by a contractor. Another contractor ships
27,000 copies to Air Force units worldwide.

The bases are expected to install the CD-ROMs on their LAN servers for shared access.
Although the users are not forbidden to print out the contents of the CD-ROMs, doing so
would be impractical. The idea is that individuals will print out a page or two, or a
form, as needed.

Is the Air Force saving money? McMullin thinks so, but he has too little information
about costs to answer that question. He would say only that paperless publishing is
neither a major cost-cutter nor a major new expense.

Beyond the obvious environmental advantages, he said the biggest reason to go paperless
is the ability to update information electronically without having to identify and dispose
of the outdated paper. "Having correct information out there is a primary
advantage," he said. "We never knew what they [field units] had out there."

One reason for his uncertainty about costs is that things are different now. The
Departmental Publishing staff used to have different distribution lists for many of the
1,250 documents now on CD-ROM. The most widely distributed item went to 22,500 addresses.
Other items reached as few as 2,000. Now all bases get every document, every month.

Also, updates often went out in the form of a few pages or perhaps a new section of a
document, such as a personnel manual or procurement regulation. Recipients were instructed
to remove only the changed pages from a loose-leaf binder and insert the replacements and
additions. Now they receive the whole document, not just the changes.

Shipping costs no doubt are lower, but they are difficult to measure because the
CD-ROMs go out in packages that still contain some paper documents. The CD-ROMs hold only
black-and-white, standard size office documents. Glossy brochures, color and nonstandard
sized documents still are printed.

Costs also will rise as more documents are added to the repositories on CD-ROMs.
McMullin said it was tough to squeeze all the documents for March onto one disk, and he
expects to have to send out two CD-ROMs in the future. At $1.75 per CD-ROM, that will add
to costs.

Conversely, he said he is interested in investigating the notion of sending the
complete document package out less often and then posting updates online. Every Air Force
base has access to the World Wide Web, he said.

Other Air Force offices create the documents, mostly in Microsoft Word 6.0. The
document itself and the updates are the responsibility of the originating office.
McMullin's office uses InContext 2 from InContext Systems Inc. of Toronto to add Standard
Generalized Markup Language tags to the documents, formatting them for publication.

The Air Force and other Defense Department agencies have standardized on SGML because
of its extensive functionality and its solidity as an international standard. Its major
disadvantage for online publishers is that viewers are not widely in use compared with
Hypertext Markup Language viewers, such as those from Netscape Communications Corp. and
Microsoft Corp.

Asked about HTML, McMullin said it "is not a robust enough subset of SGML to do
what we need to get done."

The Air Force publications staff is delivering most of the files in Adobe Systems
Inc.'s Portal Document Format. Adobe distributes its Acrobat viewer free. Other files on
the CD-ROMs are in Word format and forms software. Viewers are included on the disks,
along with a search engine from InfoAccess Inc. of Bellevue, Wash. The Air Force office
used InfoAccess' Guide Professional Publisher when getting started in online publishing
but expects to stop using it this year, McMullin said.

One reason for the conversion's success, McMullin said, was ample notice to everyone
involved. The decision was announced two years in advance, and his staff had sufficient
time to make the new system work.

The publications directorate supplied a two-disk CD-ROM drive to every Air Force base
in 1993. By now, most major bases are using CD-ROM jukeboxes, McMullin said.

Complaints have been limited largely to things beyond the control of his office, he
said. For example, at one air base in Italy, users said they were getting CD-ROMs that
were months old. The problem was traced to someone at the base who was putting each new
disk into a file drawer instead of a network CD-ROM drive.

About the Author

Nancy Ferris is senior editor of Government Health IT.

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