Paperwork cuts elude many agencies

Many federal agencies still have trouble reducing the amount of paperwork they require — and some are increasing their paper intake — even as they use more technology to provide services demanded by Congress.

According to the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, up for reauthorization this year, agencies must decrease by 5 percent a year the amount of paperwork they require citizens and businesses to file. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget measures agencies' paperwork demands in "burden hours," or the estimated time it takes someone to collect and provide the required data.

The governmentwide estimated burden rose 411 million hours from two years ago to 7.36 billion hours in fiscal 2000 , according to OIRA's initial numbers for the Information Collection Budget, to be reported to Congress. Most of that increase stems from the Treasury Department's Internal Revenue Service, responsible for 82.7 percent of the burden.

Treasury burden hours actually rose by 455 million, more than the government-wide increase. Some agencies reported declines, such as the Transportation, Labor and Defense departments, while others showed increases, such as the Agriculture, Justice and Commerce departments — much of Commerce's caused by the 2000 census.

The General Accounting Office has found that agencies still fail to take full advantage of information technology.

"We need to use technology not only to do things faster, but to fundamentally change the way agencies perform," said J. Christopher Mihm, director of strategic issues at GAO. "That's where we're going to close the gap."

IT could help by reducing the duplication of information collected, said Patrice McDermott, policy analyst with the watchdog group OMB Watch. Many agencies collect the same information from the same people, but each request must be filled out in a slightly different way. If OMB could flag duplicate collection activities already under way, it could then help agencies work together to share information and reduce the burden on citizens, she said.

That's easier than it sounds, said John Spotila, the last OIRA administrator to serve under former President Clinton. There is no simple technology solution that can pick out those subtle differences when agency collection activities ask for similar data, he said. Instead, agencies with similar missions and constituents need to get together before the collection starts to determine if they can develop a single information form.

Last year, OIRA began a quiet effort to get government and industry groups talk-ing about areas where the agencies could collaborate on information collection. The new OIRA administrator should pick up that initiative, Spotila said, adding that it was already showing benefits in the geospatial information area.

Congress has yet to confirm President Bush's OIRA nominee, John Graham. When that occurs, law-makers can expect to see more efforts to re-examine the process used to review agency collection requests, said Austin Smythe, executive associate director at OMB.

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