The Paper Paradox

By Denise Kersten

April 15, 2005

Despite the push to toss paper, federal agencies are using more of it than ever.

When Bruce James took the helm at the Government Printing Office two years ago, he considered changing the agency's name. "We're doing less printing each year," he says. The demand for printing from GPO's clients-the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government-has dropped 8 percent to 10 percent each year for the past 10 years.

It's not that the agency is becoming obsolete. People still want the information it disseminates; they just want it in a different format. While demand for printing has fallen, the agency has seen a corresponding increase of 8 percent to 10 percent annually in the number of documents downloaded from its Web site,, which now gets more than 1 million downloads daily. "People prefer to get their information from the Internet," James says.

From his standpoint, that's not a bad thing. "Digital publishing is a lot more efficient," James says. Because printing demand dropped, he was able to cut costs by offering buyouts for early retirement. The agency went from a $33 million net loss in 2003 to an $11 million net gain in 2004. James plans to move GPO out of its 1.5-million-square-foot printing plant, the largest in the world, where 50 years ago about 10,000 people worked. Today, there are fewer than 2,500 workers in the facility. And now that costs are down, James is exploring new lines of business using digital technologies, including sound and video.

GPO's shift from paper to electronic publishing reflects a growing demand for digital information that is changing the way government operates. The examples are numerous: electronic tax forms, digital case files, automated personnel forms, personal digital assistants, self-service Web sites, searchable archives and much, much more.

But what's puzzling about all this reliance on bits and bytes is that it hasn't cut down on federal agencies' use of old-fashioned office paper. "Five to 10 years ago, the belief was that all the paper was going to go away, and that belief has come full circle," says Craig Haskins, vice president for the public sector of Xerox Global Services, a consulting service based in Rochester, N.Y. In fact, offices are using more pa-per than ever.

Paper Piles Up

"A lot of organizations want to show that they're looking into the future," says Abigail J. Sellen, a Microsoft researcher and co-author of The Myth of the Paperless Office (MIT Press, 2003). One way they do that is by adopting technologies designed to replace paper, "which is often symbolic of being stuck in the old ways." Sellen says. Yet the influx of information technology hasn't curbed office workers' appetites for paper.

In 2004, the federal government used about 108,600 tons of office paper, up 12 percent from 1996, according to Merilyn E. Dunn, the director of the communication supplies consulting service at InfoTrends/CAP Ventures, a market research and consulting firm based in Weymouth, Mass. Dunn projects a continued increase, putting the federal total for 2008 at 114,360 tons. That's roughly the weight of 72,000 Toyota Camrys.

The private sector is no less paper-bound. In 2004, the total U.S. consumption of office paper weighed in at more than 8 million tons, up 19 percent from 1996, according to Dunn. She estimates that in 2008, the United States will use 8.8 million tons of office stock, roughly the weight of 88 aircraft carriers. Ironically, paper consumption has accelerated right along with the adoption of digital technologies. Between 1992 and 1996, U.S. office paper use increased 4.6 percent. During the next four years, the pace of growth picked up to 7.8 percent. And between 2000 and 2004, it grew 10.3 percent.

Experts say there's a simple explanation for the correlation between technology adoption and paper consumption: the rise of the printer. More often than ever, workers are hitting the "print" button. Dunn's research shows that the use of photocopiers and fax machines peaked around 1996 and then began to decline, and typewriters have been waning since 1988. But the use of inkjet and laser printers has exploded, more than doubling between 1996 and 2004.

Why? Information stored digitally is faster and easier to obtain, and there's more of it. And while people often get information from e-mail, the Web or their organizations' networks, many still want paper copies. They don't have to send away for copies of the federal budget printed by GPO; they can download it and print it themselves-as often as they want. "In the 1950s, if you wanted to make a copy, you needed to have a big copy machine that cost you about $10 a copy," says Johannes Scholtes, CEO of ZyLAB, a Vienna, Va.-based company that helps organizations manage paper documents. "Because it's easy to print now, people generate more paper."

Going Electronic

In their book, Sellen and co-author Richard H.R. Harper, a Xerox researcher, trace the goal of paperlessness to the early 19th century, when the telegraph, telephone and phonograph were invented. These devices seemed to their proponents superior to paper for storing and, especially, transferring information.

Despite the important advantages those technologies provided, they couldn't replicate the benefits of paper. And replacing paper still hasn't proved viable. "We have heard stories of paperless offices, but we have never seen one," write Sellen and Harper. In one office they describe, mana-gers attempted to modernize by banning filing cabinets. Workers began storing paper in their cars and homes rather than getting rid of it.

Still, there are examples of systems that have succeeded in cutting through paper. One is the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a federal agency that takes over failed pension plans and currently manages nearly 3,500 plans with more than 1 million participants. Before PBGC completed an electronic system for storing and processing information about its beneficiaries in 1996, it kept 20 to 30 pages per participant on average, estimates PBGC's deputy chief technology officer, Jon Baake.

Relying on paper caused a number of problems. When a large pension plan failed, PBGC had to open a field office nearby. After Eastern Airlines closed in 1991, for example, the agency opened a Miami office. "We had these little islands of documents," Baake says. People would check out files, copy parts of them, add new documents, fax information to headquarters, or send paperwork to the beneficiary. "Pretty soon, we had multiple copies of the files going around with different content," Baake says. "Sometimes you didn't know which was the original, correct copy." And the agency had no backup files. If a fire or other disaster had destroyed the papers in a field office, PBGC couldn't have recovered information provided by the employer, by then out of business.

Creating an electronic system gave PBGC a central repository of official documents that could be updated from any of its offices and stored at a backup facility. It also freed up lots of space. "We used to have huge file rooms," Baake says. Now that the agency can destroy papers 90 days after they're scanned into its system, it uses that storage space for offices. Baake says the agency still sends printouts to beneficiaries and workers occasionally use printers, but the agency works with far less paper than it used to.

So why was PBGC able to cut way back while other offices are using more and more?

"We're seeing a lot of the more routine processes going electronic," Sellen says. Working in electronic formats is easiest for tasks that are fairly simple, such as processing transactions or filling out forms. Baake says PBGC workers often access documents to find just one or two pieces of straightforward information, such as a participant's date of birth. For these tasks, paper isn't an ideal medium. In fact, it's pretty lousy. Searching paper for a specific bit of information takes too long. Storing paper takes up too much space, and paper deteriorates over time. Paper is impossible to access remotely, cumbersome to transport, and lets you update only one copy at a time.

By contrast, storing information electronically has lots of well-known benefits. You can search it, cut it, paste it, update it in real time, or e-mail it. You can create audit trails, restrict access to sensitive data, automate processes, build in controls and otherwise revamp the operation in ways that paper-based systems don't allow. "Once we get the paper out and we get the data in, we can do all sorts of things," says Tim Hoechst, a senior vice president with Oracle, a technology firm headquartered in Redwood Shores, Calif.

But there's one big job for which paper is still the best medium.

Thinking on Paper

GPO's James is enthusiastic about technology; he gets his news online and sends and receives hundreds of e-mails each day. Yet he still prints certain kinds of documents. "I use paper when it involves numbers," he says. "I comprehend it a lot easier if it's on paper in front of me." James likes to print three or four pages from a database to pore over them at home or while he's in transit. He scans the numbers, looking for trends and making notes in the margins. "It's just the way I work," he says. "It's a personal thing."

Actually, it's not just a personal thing. This behavior is typical. Even in agencies with well-designed computer systems, people typically use paper to help them think. They print documents to read, mark up, highlight, spread out, or stack in meaningful piles. This use of paper becomes part of the thought process; the printed documents are temporary sources from which the office worker draws while creating or revising a permanent product, which then is stored in electronic form and can be printed over and over in the future. When the task is finished, people throw away the paper. "The trash can becomes a symbol of how much knowledge work you're doing," Sellen says.

People use paper this way for a couple reasons. Many feel more comfortable reading on paper than on computer screens, which can fatigue the eyes. Paper enables readers to flip through many pages quickly, and few computer screens let you view as many documents at one time as a desk covered with printed pages. Papers spread over a desk make cross-referencing easy and help you quickly reorient yourself after a break. "You can come back and at a glance see where you were and what you were doing," Sellen says. And then there's the fact that we're used to working with paper, since desktop computers are still relatively new. "People cling to it because it's a learned behavior," says Haskins, of Xerox Global Services.

Paper also is important for collaboration. When groups meet to discuss a project, they usually take notes on paper and look at copies of the same printed document so they are literally on the same page. Typing on a keyboard during a conversation "interrupts the delicate flow of the social interaction," Sellen says. For some reason, writing on a notepad is less disruptive.

Think about which would more effectively catch your attention: a document your boss left on your chair or one sent as an e-mail attachment. Paper's physical presence sends a message. And paper has other good qualities. It's lightweight, inexpensive, portable, foldable, shred-dable, easy to use, and it doesn't crash or require electricity.

Younger workers who grew up using computers may be less dependent on paper, and several new technologies attempt to replicate paper's good qualities, so it might eventually lose some of its appeal. Electronic paper consists of thin, lightweight sheets on which one can write with a penlike instrument. It has a feel similar to paper, but stores all information digitally so it can be downloaded. Tablet computers also have potential to re-create the pen-on-paper feeling. But these technologies certainly are not the first designed to make the old-fashioned stuff go away, and it's debatable whether they will succeed where others have failed. "Until people are as comfortable working on a computer screen as they are working on paper," says Oracle's Hoechst, "it will always be around."

By Denise Kersten

April 15, 2005