Ancient Egyptians had to stand in line; we don't

Walter R. Houser

Paperwork or electronic business: Which will prevail? If you take the position that we're in the midst of a paradigm shift, the answer is e-business.

But that answer may not be obvious to those of us involved in the tumult. That is the lesson I learned from revisiting the late Thomas Kuhn's 1962 landmark study, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

According to Kuhn, a paradigm is 'a universally recognized scientific achievement that for a time provides model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners.' Setting aside the term 'scientific,' we can apply this idea to understand changes in bureaucracies as well as in laboratories.

Bureaucrats, like scientists, work in the context of paradigms. The development of bureaucracy was itself a paradigm shift. Before bureaucracies, the role of the state with respect to its citizens was highly individualistic. Serfs were essentially property. Little stood in the way of arbitrary exercises of power.

Bureaucracy is a hallmark of civilized society. Even oppressive bureaucracies are better than the brutal chaos that preceded them. Ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman bureaucrats regularized relations between citizens and state by applying consistent codes of conduct expressed through bureaucratic process. Pharaoh mobilized Egypt's vast bureaucratic apparatus to store grain during the fabled seven abundant years.

Bureaucracies have paradigms of their own. In the paperwork paradigm, citizens go to a government office, wait in line, fill out forms, perhaps wait in another line, talk with clerks and, with luck, get what they came for.

Government hours are typically 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.'when nearly everyone else is working. So customers must take time off from their jobs to endure this paper-based process. I have little doubt that this contributes to government's unpopularity.

Open all hours

Under an ideal e-business paradigm, a citizen would log on to a government Web site using a private key. The site would verify the person's identity with a public key, and the confidential transaction would begin. Documents would be signed and sent using the same public- and private-key technology. The agency could authorize and even provide benefits and services online. No lines, waits, forgotten documents or return visits. Instead, citizens would get prompt, private and individual'though impersonal'service.

The paperwork paradigm is slow and typically wastes customer time. It is location-specific. You can't begin the process in one office and complete it in another without a tedious and error-prone transfer of records.

It is also sequential. Files travel point-to-point across several desks, as if on an assembly line. Paperwork can't be processed in parallel steps without creating redundant files. That multiplies cost, complexity and the chance of errors.

Until recently, though, paperwork, for all its inadequacies, was all any bureaucracy had, so the problems were simply endured. Under a paperwork paradigm, how are agencies to deliver benefits to the homeless and migrant laborers? The paperwork paradigm cannot deal with such situations, so these citizens often fall through the cracks.

Kuhn observed that no paradigm is ever overturned solely by its anomalies. Bureaucrats and seasoned customers become resigned to the system and its required workarounds. But a new paradigm can find fertile soil in the failings of the old.

People will wait stoically in line until they experience online shopping. They can live with the inconvenience of office visits until they discover that businesses will come to their homes 24 hours a day. Location ceases to matter on the Internet. Even migrant workers, the homeless and others lacking Internet access can use kiosks at public libraries and shopping centers.

The remarkable penetration of the personal computer and the Internet into our homes and offices will not make paper disappear anytime soon. Nor will our expectations for electronic services suddenly evaporate. And the network infrastructure will only improve. Although we will see parallel paperwork and online processes, the latter will eventually prevail.

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His personal Web home page is at

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