WASHINGTON — The federal government uses 9,858 unique forms and processes more than 106 billion pieces of paperwork each year, costing the public $117 billion, according to a report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber, the world’s biggest business organization and the largest lobbying group in the U.S., detailed the costs of paper-based processes in federal agencies to make the case for technology and automation. Over the past year, the public spent 10.5 billion hours filling out government documents for federal services, it said.
Many federal agencies still rely on paper processes that lengthen turnaround times for services, add “burden hours” on citizens and require billions of hours of manual labor by government employees, according to the report.
Paper returns took at least eight months for the IRS to process last year, costing $3 billion in interest alone, the report said.
”The federal government has fallen so far behind the private sector in IT modernization that it is still employing decades-old technology that makes it less able to effectively adapt,” the Chamber report read. “Ultimately, if government can’t perform its basic functions efficiently and effectively, it fails and loses the trust of the people who depend on its services.”
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many government operations to go virtual, which served as a stress test that not every agency passed, according to the Chamber, whose Technology Engagement Center promotes the role of technology in the economy.
The White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which is tasked with overseeing the implementation of government-wide policies, tracked several measures of government inefficiency related to manual processing. It found that the Department of the Treasury logged the most “burden hours” to the public with 6.57 billion hours spent on paperwork. It also had the highest taxpayer costs among agencies analyzed.
The Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture and the Securities and Exchange Commission also generated some of the most paperwork across federal government.
The government has tried for decades to do something about it.
Internal groups including OIRA were created to collect information about how efficient agencies are when they rely solely on paper forms.
The Paperwork Reduction Act was signed into law in 1995 to calculate “burden hours” and costs of government processes, which are displayed on federal forms and made accessible to the public.
But the PRA neither takes into account current technologies nor provides guidance on modern data collection.
Two decades later, Congress passed the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act, which aimed to improve the digital experience for government customers and reinforce existing requirements for federal public websites.
Still, without a statute requiring compliance, these legislative steps lack the teeth to clamp down on lackluster outcomes. Only about 20% of the more than $90 billion of the U.S. government’s annual IT spending is devoted to modernization.
Recognizing the need for a more forceful push toward modernization of manual processes, the 2018 Modernizing Government Technology Act established a fund within the Department of the Treasury for federal agencies to apply for loans to update their outdated systems.
Congress appropriated $1 billion to the fund through the American Rescue Plan, but the allocations so far have mostly focused on cybersecurity instead of updating federal legacy system, the report said.
In the meantime, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed how legacy paper processes bottleneck when the workforce is displaced.
The Small Business Administration, whose IT system ranked among the top 10 critical federal legacy systems most in need of modernization before the pandemic, saw its website crash while rolling out the Paycheck Protection Program.
“The public policy was there, but our IT systems often couldn’t deliver,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) at a congressional hearing on federal IT modernization in 2020. “In other words, the fate of the world’s largest economy rises and falls often with the ability of government IT systems to deliver in an emergency, and that should galvanize us all.”
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.