White House: E-forms bill impedes Y2K fix

The Clinton administration last week voiced concern that a bill calling for the government to distribute and accept forms electronically would delay agencies from completing Year 2000 fixes.

The bill, called the Government Paperwork Elimination Act, would require the Commerce Department to create within 12 months a way for each federal agency to make its forms— such as tax forms, compliance information and job applications— available electronically and to allow citizens to sign the forms with digital signatures. Agencies then would have 36 months to make the transition.

This bill is different from the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, which directs agencies to cut burdensome, bureaucratic paperwork by distributing data via information technology and other means.

Congress expects the bill will make dealing with the government easier and less expensive. Members of the committee claimed the bill could help reduce the more than $600 billion a year the public spends on filling out government forms.

However, during a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee, Andrew Pincus, general counsel at Commerce, said that while the administration is a strong supporter of electronic commerce, the timing of the bill may harm the Year 2000 effort in the government.

"With Y2K compliance looming...we are leery of deadlines that might divert the same people that are working on Y2K to other issues," Pincus said. "What we want to work toward is a time line with some flexibility in it...in a way that does not divert resources from Y2K."

The administration is especially concerned about the amount of effort required to begin accepting forms electronically.

The bill would allow businesses and individuals to submit any fees or payments, such as income tax payments, at the same time they electronically file a corresponding form. The public would secure the forms and payments with digital signature technology, a method for authenticating the identity of the person who signed the document and ensuring that the contents of the form were not altered during transmission.

However, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said federal agencies cannot treat Year 2000 and online forms as mutually exclusive because the two efforts complement each other. Agencies should "build the digital signature effort into Y2K," he said.

Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) said the federal government has failed to take a leading role in developing digital signature technology, thereby impeding the growth of the technology in the marketplace. "If digital signatures are to become fully accepted in the digital marketplace, they must be used and accepted by the federal government," he said.

The bill is broadly supported by industry, including the American Electronics Association, the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Payroll Association, the Information Technology Association of America, Charles Schwab, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Electronic Data Systems Corp.

Scott Cooper, manager for technology policy at HP, said electronic forms systems could provide significant cost savings to government agencies.

"For the federal government, having federal agencies go 'online' will result in a significant lowering of their transaction costs for sending and receiving government forms," Cooper said.

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