NIST scraps some paper forms

The agency that built the atomic clock, invented a way to count electrons and developed virtual reality so refined it can be used for training surgeons still conducts much of its day-to-day business on paper forms shuttled from office to office in cardboard folders.

It has been done that way for years at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which turned 100 this spring. Say you want your office painted. You fill out a work order, stick it in a red folder and send it to your supervisor. If he approves, he signs the order, returns it to the folder and sends it on to the next supervisor, who signs it and sends it forward and so on.

But that's beginning to change. With a project called e-Approval, NIST is scrapping some of its paper forms and red folders. In their place the agency is using electronic forms and software that zips the forms to the appropriate managers, who can approve them with a digital signature and send them on to the next manager.

"We've just started rolling it out," said Kevin Inman, director of the e-Approval project. In addition to automating "interdivisional work orders," such as requests to have offices painted, NIST is starting to use electronic forms for some purchases, for reimbursing employees for local travel, and for some of the time and attendance records kept for payroll purposes.

Automating just those four processes required converting 220 paper forms to electronic ones, Inman said.

Once a user has called up the needed electronic forms, the e-Approval system provides instructions for filling them out. For some functions, "smart technology" takes over by automatically filling in parts of the form and sending the completed form to the next recipient in the chain of command, according to Materials, Communication and Computers Inc. (MatCom), the company hired to help assemble the system.

Ultimately, creating paperless business processes should save NIST significant time and money, MatCom officials said.

That's the goal for all agencies under the Government Paperwork Elimination Act. The act requires federal agencies to offer people the option of submitting information electronically as of Oct. 23, 2003. Agencies are supposed to be able to accept electronic signatures and provide appropriate security for electronic information by then.

But in June, the Office of Management and Budget said less than half of federal agencies are on track to meet the 2003 deadline.

Although NIST's e-Approval project was not intended as a prototype for other agencies, several have expressed interest in the project's progress, Inman said. "We've had some agencies call us, asking if could take a look."

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