Industry Coalition Seeks to Keep Government on the Paper Trail

While Washington is looking for ways to cut costs by moving its operations to the web, one group is working to preserve paper-based communications for those who prefer them or lack access to technology.

The U.S. Census Bureau is on the brink of a historic change. After centuries of using the Postal Service and in-person visits, the agency said it may move its decennial national survey to the web.

The online platform, which will be tested in roughly 200,000 households in the Washington, DC, area this summer, was developed to address the problems of rising costs and hard-to-reach respondents—challenges that many federal agencies, as well as associations and for-profit companies, face in today’s economy. And it’s the latest example of the government shifting to a paperless model for conducting its business with the public. If the trial run goes well, the new platform will be applied to the 2020 census.

The shift to a paperless federal government might seem like a natural step in the digital age, with 87 percent of U.S. adults using the internet, according to the latest data from the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project.

The message from the paper industry, however, is “Not so fast.”

Consumers for Paper Options, a coalition set up by the Envelope Manufacturers Association and supported by paper manufacturers and other industry stakeholders, has been lobbying hard over the last several years to slow the government’s move toward digital, saying a paperless government would leave some Americans without needed services.

“Paper-based communications are critically important for millions of Americans—especially for seniors and the 30 percent of citizens without online access,” CPO states on its website. “We can go digital without discriminating against Americans who may not, or cannot, use technology. By getting this right, we will bridge the digital divide and achieve significant efficiency gains—without shifting costs to consumers who can least afford them.”

CPO’s efforts have paid off with recent victories, including language included in last month’s federal budget deal that restored access to paper Social Security statements.

“Social Security statements are a tremendous resource, providing American workers a way to proactively verify the accuracy of their benefits, and, in turn, make informed retirement decisions,” John Runyan, executive director of CPO, said in a statement. “Congress’s latest action represents a significant step toward making sure that all Americans can access this important financial planning tool.”

Government purchases of paper are a small share of overall demand, but in the past year alone, 22 agencies reduced spending on paper by about 7 percent to $64 million per year, according to General Services Administration data cited by the Washington Post. Still, Runyan told the Post that restoring the use of paper in federal transactions could help set a precedent for the private sector, where the paper industry has been hit much harder by the move to all-digital offices.

“The glitzy new thing is to be pro-technology,” he said. But “if there are Americans who can’t use an iPhone to navigate the internet, there ought to be an option for them.”


Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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