Paperless "Paperwork"

WASHINGTON (03/21/2000) - In less than four years, federal agencies are supposed to stop using paper. Government records -- from personnel evaluations to benefits applications to contracts and regulations -- are supposed to be created, used and preserved electronically.

Picture a government office free of paper clutter. But don't picture it free of the chores associated with "paperwork."

The electronic office will require a new cadre of government office workers: records managers. Instead of typing and filing, they will have to know how to create and maintain electronic records. From recovering lost or corrupted files to migrating old electronic documents to new formats, records managers will be responsible for ensuring the integrity of government data, said U.S. National Archives and Records Administration officials.

As NARA sees it, "records management requirements will form the core of the IT system requirements" of federal agencies. Lewis Bellardo, deputy archivist of the United States, offers a glimpse of the future in the records management guidance the he wrote and that is circulating among agencies preparing to comply with the Government Paperwork Elimination Act. Things taken for granted in the Paper Age will be more complicated.

Consider "usability": A paper document needs to be merely picked up and read, but an electronic document must be located, retrieved, presented and interpreted through hardware and software before it is usable. Trustworthiness and reliability are other concerns with electronic documents. Records managers must be able to ensure that electronic records are a "full and accurate representation of the transactions, activities or facts to which they attest," Bellardo wrote. They will have to control the creation, transmission and maintenance of records to protect against unauthorized addition, deletion or alteration. Failure to maintain trustworthy electronic records will leave agencies vulnerable to lawsuits and could undermine public confidence in the government, Bellardo warned. Archives officials turned down requests for additional details on how they envision the electronic office. But in his records management guidance, Bellardo said a major responsibility for agencies will be ensuring the authenticity of electronic documents by preserving digital signatures. Like ink-on-paper signatures, electronic signatures will be legally binding. Agencies may be required to keep a whole new set of records, Bellardo said. These may range from files containing passwords and personal identification numbers to electronic certificates files. They may also have to store "physical artifacts" such as smart cards, he said.

The Government Paperwork Elimination Act -- Enacted Oct. 21, 1998.

-- Aims to save industry money and time by reducing government paperwork. n Requires federal agencies to offer most forms electronically.

-- Authorizes acceptance of electronic signatures by federal agencies.

-- Approves acceptance of electronic payments by agencies.

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