Pandemic Moves GAO Further Along Digitization Path

Directors estimate around 99% of documents now in electronic format

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03/30/2021

Christine Dunne

 

The US Government Accountability Office has come a long way in terms of digitization in the last few decades; the pandemic—along with a nearly 100% telework rate across the agency, which is charged by Congress to investigate federal government matters—has certainly played a role.

 

Seal of the United States Government Accountability Office
Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

“Printing at home is just not practical,” said Diana Maurer, director in the defense capabilities and management team. “You know, at work it was one thing…when I was in the office, if I had a 60-page draft report, I’d just print it hardcopy and I could scroll my comments and flip back and forth and say ‘What did we say back on page 3?’ But I’m not going to print a 60-page draft report at in my home.”

 

Maurer’s colleague John Dicken, director in the GAO’s healthcare team, feels similarly. He used to bring printouts to meetings in place of a computer, but now that doesn’t make sense: “That’s been certainly replaced now that all my meetings are staring at a computer screen.”

 

Maurer and Dicken say about 99% of the documents they now handle are digital; they get the sense it’s a similar story for the teams of analysts they manage—many of whom have two screens for viewing and analyzing spreadsheets, databases, and other source of information. People don’t want to pay to print at home (even though they potentially could get reimbursed for a significant need); it’s easier to share information with colleagues across the country using digital files.

 

Screenshot From My Conversation With the GAO’s Maurer and Dicken

 

When GAO’s Washington, D.C., headquarters opens back up (beyond the limited use occurring right now for classified work and other mission critical needs), they expect print levels to be below pre-pandemic—driven by people working from home more frequently than before. Plus, colleagues will have become accustomed to new digital workflows by then.

 

“I think before there were people really comfortable doing (remote work) and other people who would do it on a rare occasion but, now that we’ve all been doing it 100% of the time, I think there’s just a lot more comfort universally of being efficient and doing it,” Dicken said.

 

The ever-increasing move to digital also aligns well with the agency’s need to provide adequate oversight, evidence documentation, and fact checking of information. This can be performed in GAO’s document management database, which is also used to store and share information (often in Word, PDF, or Excel format). But e-mail is also a primary method of information storage and exchange, including links to files in the document management system and password-protected attachments for sensitive information.

 

“Most of the stuff that I save is in e-mail,” Maurer said. “I don’t typically take much time at all to store documents in that system because I have direct reports and individual teams…they’re doing that, they’re out there collecting the raw information.”

 

While nearly all of GAO’s documents are now in digital form, it was the opposite when Maurer and Dicken started their positions in the early 1990s. About 1% of documents were digital, and the rest stored in big black binders.

 

Even digital files (in the form of floppy disks) had to be included in the binders, which Maurer remembers FedExing from the GAO’s Detroit office to colleagues in Washington D.C. Now it’s much easier to share information with headquarters and field offices in other cities (there are 11 field offices total).

 

The shift to digital occurred little by little, driven by the ease of sharing and documenting information electronically, a mid-2000s mandate that workpapers (documents collected) had to be digital in some way, as well as other tertiary drivers like cost savings and environmental benefits.

 

“My guess is that, for a long period of time where we were doing both electronic and paper, it was probably more expensive to have those both as options. I think there was a lot of flexibility of people who were more comfortable with print and others with electronic,” Dicken said.

 

Copy, scan, and fax also now play a minimal role in the agency—fueled by the overall decline in hardcopy files as well as electronic signature use. That said, things are not all doom and gloom for the office print industry. As an example, Maurer still prints her trusty calendar of responsibilities each week.

 

“I’m so old school, I like to have my weekly calendar in front of me as a piece of paper so I can scribble on it,” she said. “I print out my weekly calendar on a piece of paper and I attach it to a folder…I just like to have it with me.”

 

The GAO represents just 3,000 or so of the federal government’s approximately 2.1 civilian workers. According to new Keypoint Intelligence estimates, the overall US public administration sector (including all levels of government) is the third largest generator of print of all sectors—sending about 29 billion pages to print devices each year. That’s still undeniably quite a few prints, and a significant opportunity for digitization.

 

US Public Administration Print Volume Shares by Organization Size
The data comes from Keypoint Intelligence's US Vertical Market Opportunity Analysis for the 2020 period.

 

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