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Created

January 18, 2009

Not all ‘old’ ideas are bad!

Since the election last fall, there’s been a deluge of information, opinions and speculation regarding the priorities of our new administration. As a citizen of the United States, I have my own thoughts and opinions on what the administration should concentrate on first, the areas of the agenda that I personally think will have the greatest positive impact on our society and, well, me and my family in particular. At the end of the day, it will be folks with much larger voices than mine that truly dictate the priorities, however, that will not prevent me from sharing my thoughts.

As a technologist, in particular, a solutions architect, I am generally predisposed to looking for common use cases, patterns, and the ability to reuse anything of value that currently exists. Why recreate the wheel, right? So, from this perspective I dove into the wide array of potential initiatives that have been discussed in the past months. I cruised back through magazine articles, blogs, forums, Change.gov, anyplace that could offer ideas to toss into the mix. If you’ve been following the various discussions, you will not be too terribly surprised with what I pulled out. Here are a few of the ideas and challenges that seem to getting the most press:

* Heathcare – Electronic Medical Records
* The Economy – address the credit crisis, help for homeowners
* Veterans needs – faster benefits delivery
* Work/Life balance – more time with family
* Homeland Security – information collection and sharing
* Technology – cybersecurity, social networking
* Green – telework, environment
* Increased Efficiencies AND Increased Effectiveness – more with less, lower cost


There are of course, many others but these will serve just fine for the remainder of this exercise.

In addition, the Obama Administration has made clear a number of on-going themes that should characterize the approach and execution of the initiatives. Building upon a platform of privacy and security, the administration is driving towards a government that is far more citizen friendly than ever before, focusing on easy to use and understand interactions, openness and transparency, wide access to information and an environment of collaboration, not only inside the walls of government, but also with any citizens who wish to participate.

With my list defined, the next step was to seek the commonalities, to look for solvable issues across the widest possible range. I won’t bore you with ALL the ideas I came up with, however there are few that I believe are compelling:

* all the initiatives I looked at are focused on making a better life for some, if not all, citizens (vs. technology initiatives for the sake of technology)
* in some form or fashion, technology exists to help address the initiatives
* whether it be for data collection, information sharing or collaboration, paper still plays a big role

The focus on people and the usage of technology as the solution to the many issues was not a surprise, especially given the the platform from which President Elect Obama ran his campaign. But paper? Since at least the mid-90′s, there has been legislation imposed to reduce and eliminate paper from government processes and yet, as we enter 2009, we find that paper is still alive a well in government. Of course, I’m not suggesting that there’s been no progress, on the contrary, there are many government agencies that have worked diligently to reduce paper, however, when compared to traditionally paper-oriented entities such as those in the financial industry, there’s still many opportunities for improvement, improvement that could have an immediate positive impact on the people of this country.

So what happens when paper really does go away. None of this is new news, but, given how easy it is for our society to become enamored with the newest, shiniest toy, I believe it bears repeating.

First, there are the environmental impacts, meaning Green. Since this is not intended to be an environmental blog entry I’ll keep that facts short here. But, did you know that 1 trillion sheets of paper are used in digital printers and copiers each year in the U.S.? What’s the cost for all this on the environment? Try 850 million trees a year for starters. (For more stats, check these: http://tinyurl.com/a6gwcs and http://tinyurl.com/862wyn)

Second, there are the financial burdens of paper. Sticking with the 1 trillion sheets from above, imagine the costs. That’s a lot of paper, paper that needs to be made, purchased, stored, handled, shipped, and disposed of! Add on top of that the cost for all the ink needed to print out all this paper. Doing a simple back of the envelope calculation, it would cost me $67,600,000,000.00 just to purchase all this paper, shipping NOT included! (Admittedly, in this quantity, I would probably get a discount, but……)

Third, there are the process impacts. Paper has long been a bane to efficiencies. It takes time to move it from place to place, it gets lost (or, ‘reported’ lost such as, ‘I didn’t get that’), people have to write on it and worse, people need to read it, many times needing a special decoder ring to decipher what was written. (I’ve long been a culprit of lousy handwriting!) Typical paper based processes are quite slow and always run the risk of introducing data integrity issues.

My fourth and final point is the social impact of paper. There are a couple interesting perspectives on this idea, such as manufacturing and disposal, however, the elimination of paper from processes is the most interesting within the context of this blog. Think about the ramifications of freeing people from passing paper and making processes fully automated. No longer are people necessarily required to be in a certain place to perform their job. No longer does a citizen need to make a trip to the local library or government office to pick up a form. People can interact with government from wherever they are, at what ever time they choose.

When taken collectively, the impact of paper in government and specifically on many of the Obama Administration’s agenda items, can be quite significant. At this point, I will leave it to you to imagine the benefits to homecoming veterans, single working moms and even the security of our homeland. However, I will leave you with this parting thought, let’s be careful not to forget a good idea from the past just because it seems all dull and boring.

@BobbyCaudill

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