An Information Technology and Innovation Foundation report found federal agencies need to make more progress on digitizing forms. 

Sep 29 2021
Digital Workspace

Federal Agencies Must Make More Progress on Digitizing Forms, Report Finds

Recent data from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation reveals that only a tiny percentage of government forms are compliant with a law meant to spur digitization.

It’s 2021, not 1991, yet many federal government forms are still stuck in the analog era, according to a recent report. The reliance on paper forms has only grown starker amid the coronavirus pandemic, when some government offices were shuttered for long periods, nixing in-person interactions.

According to a recent report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a technology policy think tank, many government forms are not fully compliant with the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA), a law passed in 2018 that required agencies to transition from paper forms to accessible, mobile-friendly, web-based forms within two years.

In a random sample of 1,348 forms, ITIF found that 1,052 (78 percent) were partially compliant with the law, and only 24 (less than 2 percent) were fully compliant.

“Digital solutions hold enormous promise to transform U.S. government services,” Ashley Johnson, policy analyst at ITIF and co-author of the report, tells Nextgov. “These solutions can streamline outdated processes and provide Americans with faster, more convenient, and more personalized access to their government.”

The report makes several recommendations to the executive branch and to Congress to increase the pace of digitization of forms, including that the federal CIO Council “should create a web-based-forms task force to track and expedite compliance, prioritizing forms the general public uses the most.” ITIF also recommends that Congress “require agencies to report detailed information on their compliance with 21st Century IDEA’s forms requirements.”

How to Make Progress on Digital Forms and Modern Websites

Under 21st Century IDEA, agencies are not required to provide information about their transition to web-based forms. Of the agencies that have provided specific numbers on how many forms they have made available in a compliant digital format — the Defense, Treasury and Veterans Affairs departments — “all report significantly lower numbers than the total number of forms our assessment found associated with each agency, indicating that agencies use a narrow definition of which of their forms are ‘related to serving the public,’” the ITIF report found.

For example, while ITIF’s assessment found 1,159 total forms associated with DOD, the DOD “claimed in its most recent 21st Century IDEA report that it has digitized all 139 of its forms related to serving the public,” ITIF states in the report.

ITIF found that only 2 percent of government forms in its sample are “fully compliant as an online form” and that “78 percent are partially compliant as a fillable PDF.”

“Most executive agencies have made significant progress toward making their forms available as fillable PDFs,” the report states. “But, although users may be able to fill out and submit these forms without printing, as long as the forms have e-signatures enabled, which most did not, this format does not fully comply with 21st Century IDEA’s mobile-friendliness requirement.”

The fault may not be entirely with the agencies themselves, ITIF suggests, noting that the Office of Management and Budget has not produced guidance for agencies to comply with 21st Century IDEA, as required by the law.

The law required OMB to issue implementation guidance by June 18, 2019, and members of Congress again asked on May 6, 2021, for guidance by June 20, 2021, according to ITIF.

“Both of those deadlines have now passed. It is likely that, without implementation guidance, agencies will continue to struggle to fully comply with 21st Century IDEA’s requirements,” the report states. “Moreover, as agencies continue to create forms without guidance, they will likely create many that do not comply with the law, which will create more unnecessary work for them in the future to recreate those forms in a mobile-friendly and accessible format.”

ITIF recommended that OMB issue implementation guidance for the law and that Congress hold oversight hearings on agencies’ compliance with 21st Century IDEA. ITIF also recommends that the Technology Modernization Board should issue grants to incentivize agencies to use, and that OMB should direct federal agencies to discontinue the use of fax machines.

RELATED: How did the U.S. Census Bureau carry out the first all-digital census?

How Technology Can Help Agencies Digitize Forms

Various technologies can help agencies accelerate the process of digitizing forms and making them accessible to government users and citizens alike.

Document management involves the “use of a computer system and software to store, manage and track electronic documents and electronic images of paper-based information captured through the use of a document scanner,” according to the Association for Intelligent Information Management.

An electronic document management system lets agencies store, access, index, search, retrieve, archive and delete documents. An EDMS is designed to let agencies convert physical documents into electronic forms that can be stored and accessed quickly.

Longstanding tools can also help agency IT teams transform paper forms and legacy processes into digital ones. As Adobe notes on its website, its Adobe Acrobat tool can help in this regard: “Whether it’s a scan of an existing manual document or a simple line form made with Microsoft Word, you can use the Prepare Form tool to create digital forms from your existing documents. Acrobat automatically recognizes form fields for things like text entries, checkboxes, radio buttons, and signatures.”

Adobe also points to its Adobe Experience Manager Forms solution as a way to enable agencies to author “web and mobile-responsive forms and documents via a create once, publish anywhere experience,” according to a 2018 report from the company and research firm IDC.

Adobe notes that while AEM Forms can be used for simple, transaction-based interactions, the solution can also be used “to simplify and streamline the complex transactions seen in regulated industries and government services,” with typical use cases including customer enrollment and onboarding, employee onboarding, customer service, and customer communications.

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