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To save billions, let's finally put government forms to work

electronic document (MaximP/Shutterstock.com) 

The U.S. government is awash in more official forms than any organization in the history of civilization. A review of the websites where the Department of Defense and the General Services Administration keep official form libraries suggests there are well over 10,000 forms poised for download.

With this staggering volume of forms, one might imagine that the government would be extremely forward thinking about forms and their management. Unfortunately, it's not. In fact, the laws, regulations and policies controlling forms usage show the government is well behind the times, continuing to drive policy from a distant past.

The government's approach to forms is overdue for a complete makeover: a modernization effort that would provide instant cost avoidance and significant economies of scale, potentially worth billions of dollars. To be clear, this is not about more adoption of the status quo digital document. Rather, there is a new generation of proven technology that provides enormous cost savings by bringing forms to life, transforming them from dead electronic artifacts into living dynamic bot-like entities that drive data collection and data management. This is really about exploiting the potential processing power of the form itself.

Some quick history: For the most part, government forms management is still handled as if it were 1995, the year of the Paperwork Reduction Act. The focus of that law was to ensure that new form creation was limited, with an emphasis on reducing duplication and minimizing burdens on citizens. It was a law written when fax machines were ubiquitous and before data management disciplines were paramount. The Paperwork Reduction Act, a relic of the Clinton-era Reinventing Government push, does not contemplate current forms technology and it provides no guidance on best practices for modern data collection. As its name suggests, the law is focused on paper.

Twenty-five years later, no policy making entity in the government has seriously reconsidered the way in which forms data are collected, managed and exploited to maximize efficiency. To be fair, there is legislation that has nibbled around the edges. The 2018 IDEA Act is designed to ensure that all paper forms are digitized on government websites and accessible by the disabled. But simply getting old paper forms into a digitized format is yesterday's initiative. It only addresses the most rudimentary of useful goals, and ironically, it may actually perpetuate a chronic issue: dead data marooned on a form.

Here's the problem: the government is predominately using electronic forms in one of two ways. The first is to simply digitize a paper form into a PDF and make it available for completion via the web. Sure, the form can be emailed and stored, but the data is still locked up on the form. To use the stranded data, somebody either exports or retypes the information into another system. This is only marginally better than microfiche. Instead of the data uselessly inert in a filing cabinet, the image of the data is now uselessly inert on a server.

The more progressive way the government uses electronic forms is an improvement, but still inadequate. Here, the web form is hardcoded into a dedicated web application. But this means any change or evolution in the form requires software developers to take the entire application offline, rewrite it and test it, to ensure nothing breaks. Since this is clunky and not agile, hardcoded form integration causes delays when the government is trying to quickly accommodate emergencies, as we saw, in part, with the backlog of unemployment claims and small business loans associated with COVID-19. It's like being forced to rebuild the house, when all that's needed is a front door realignment.

There is a better way. In the last decade, it's become possible to deploy forms as a dynamic platform for data management. With readily available modern software, electronic forms can be decoupled from back-end systems and the form itself can carry processing instructions. With instructions behind each field, data can be validated in real time, business rules can be set to trigger workflows, and multiple applications can be fed. The form essentially becomes the entry point for data collection, dissemination and management, rather than a dead-end artifact. When you give processing logic to the form, it can actually do work.

Additionally, because the form can stand alone and do its work directing data according to virtually any logic, it lends itself to a shared service approach suitable for large enterprises or agencies. In this way, forms can be built once, and easily replicated with varying instructions, for varying users. Although every agency may use the OF1164 for reimbursement claims, it is unlikely the collected data feeds the same financial management system at each agency. With a shared service, a form could be created once, and replicated with different directions for each agency. Setting up multiple agencies to collect data off an existing form could take only minutes. Forms as a shared service represents enormous economies of scale.

So what is needed to make this a reality? Policy.

First, the government needs to move beyond the simple goal of migrating paper forms into digital documents. Instead, it should encourage the use of forms as a data collection platform for the maximization of data management. There is not a word of policy that directs the use of forms to enhance data management. Current policy is all about the paper and not about the data. By turning forms management into a data management discipline, agencies can build dedicated departments arounds forms deployment, reducing the overall burden on the organization. When this is done properly, the organization has a much better chance to turn data into an asset. Similarly, it can turn on a dime when data collection needs change in real time.

In April of 2019, an Office of Management and Budget memo promoting more shared services stated that one of the goals of the President's Management Agenda was to "consolidate common mission-support functions…to leverage common technology, potentially realizing costs savings as much as 5-30 percent."

With modern forms technology, there is no better candidate for centralized consolidation and cost savings than the official government form.

About the Author

Michael Garland is the founder of Garland, LLC, a consulting firm that advises clients on issues related to federal procurement law and the business of IT.

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