OMB shows managers how to go digital

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Federal managers must offer government services electronically, or explain their failure to do so, the Office of Management and Budget said Friday.

OMB's digital directive in the March 5 Federal Register guides agency managers through the steps they should take to put government forms and other paperwork online, including options for using digital signatures and other authentication procedures.

"Agencies should develop and implement plans to use and accept documents in electronic form and engage in electronic transactions," OMB wrote. "It is administration policy that a decision to not allow the option of electronic filing and record keeping should be supported by a specific showing that . . . there is no reasonably cost-effective combination of technologies and management controls that can minimize the risk of significant harm."

The Government Paperwork Elimination Act, which Congress passed as part of the fiscal 1999 omnibus appropriations bill, instructed OMB to develop guidance for agencies on offering government forms electronically. The bill also gave agencies five years to figure out ways to accept forms online that would likely garner a high volume of electronic users.

OMB's proposed procedures, which are open to comment until July 5, offer a planning process managers can use to go digital and describe various technologies agencies can use in place of signatures on paper forms. Personal identification numbers (PINs), smart cards, digitized signatures, biometrics, and cryptography are the means agencies can use to ensure security and proper identification, the OMB notice says.

Several agencies have beaten OMB to the punch. The Education Department, for example, allows college students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid online at www.fafsa.ed.gov. The Selective Service System also has set up an online registration form at https://www4.sss.gov/regver/Register1.asp.

Johnny Young, director of reproduction services at the General Services Administration, envisions a single online repository of federal forms. The "Can't Beat GSA Web Forms" program he runs at www.gsa.gov/forms already includes 400 GSA, standard and optional forms.

The GSA program uses fill-in form technology. That means the online forms look like their print counterparts but can be filled in on the computer. Several companies offer fill-in form software, including Adobe (PDF format), JetForm (FormFlow), Metastorm (InForms) and Intercon (DocNet). Forms can either be filled in, printed out and mailed or faxed to agencies, or sent on the Internet to avoid paper completely.

Owen Ambur, a records manager at the Fish and Wildlife Service, said federal agencies should go beyond the bare minimum requirements of the Government Paperwork Elimination Act.

"It would be my hope that all agencies would go beyond the minimum requirements and make all of their forms and document formats readily available for completion and submission by electronic means," Ambur said. "Any public official who continues to insist upon or even to expect the submission of paper might be a candidate for papers of their own, of the 'walking' variety."

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