PDF and Adobe Acrobat still lead the public sector’s electronic document revolution
Documents in the form of laws, memos, reports, publications, contracts, policies, regulations, forms and so on are the infrastructure of government. The process of authoring, editing, reviewing, signing, managing, collecting, disseminating or destroying these documents is itself the work of the government, all day, every day.
Reduced to its most basic elements, government is a collection of massive document systems, all interacting (and colliding) in various useful and useless ways. When it does work, it’s “good government.” When poorly considered or just plain dumb, we call government documentation requirements “red tape” to signify the bureaucratic obstacles these paper piles present.
Today long-standing calls for smaller government are producing a real evolution in document development and implementation. Adobe Acrobat and PDF are helping local, state and federal government offices and agencies around the globe do more with less paper and less inefficiency.
In many ways, the U.S. federal government is leading the effort to transform the world of documents from paper to electronic, and Adobe’s PDF has emerged as a common standard for the same three reasons that underlie the success of PDF everywhere:
- PDF delivers an exact representation of an original document
- PDF delivers a consistent experience on all computing platforms and printer
- PDF is free to view and print with Adobe’s free and ubiquitous Reader software
“There’s not a federal agency that does not use PDF,” says Greg Pisocky, Business Development Manager for Adobe Systems. “Acrobat software and Adobe PDF are key technologies in some capacity at all branches and levels of government, the military and virtually every agency,”
PDF adoption is hardly a U.S.-only phenomenon. Internationally, India, Australia and numerous other countries have adopted PDF in a big way, using it for publishing everything from voter-registration lists to family-court forms.
Read on to learn more about some of the ways that select government agencies are harnessing the power of PDF.
Less government, less paper
Beginning in the Clinton administration, U.S. government agencies were charged to “reinvent government,” a mandate to reduce bureaucracy, streamline processes and improve performance. Clinton-era initiatives included the Presidential Memorandum on Plain Language and the Paperwork Reduction Act, directing every level and agency of the government and military to measurably improve the way they communicate and work. The trend towards improving document technologies has continued in the Bush administration. Now, all levels of the U.S. government are required to adopt a more businesslike approach to save taxpayers’ money, speed communications inside and outside government, and make government documentation more accessible to disabled users.
In response, agencies began to reassess their traditional workflows, looking for ways to improve performance in fulfilling their respective missions. Over and over, they found that paper documents and paper-based workflows were a continuing source of inefficiency. During the past 10 years, they have increasingly looked to Acrobat and PDF for help.
The mid-1990s saw Adobe Systems begin to extend PDF beyond the original print and prepress functions. They added forms capabilities, structure for accessibility and mobility, digital signatures, XMP metadata and many other features to the PDF specification. More recently, standards-oriented initiatives such as PDF/A (Archival), and PDF/UA (Universal Accessibility) are beginning to provide the technical underpinnings necessary to keep PDF at the very heart of the government’s document strategy for decades, if not centuries, to come.
Several key federal regulatory agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Federal Courts have adopted Adobe PDF as either mandated or preferred file-format standards.
From the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Small Business Administration and Census Bureau, nearly every office and agency of the government is using Acrobat and PDF to reduce costs, improve service and streamline formerly paper-document processes.
In the following sections, we’ll look at how several federal government agencies use Acrobat and PDF to solve old problems and, in some cases, to create new opportunities.
OPM: Improving accessibility for federal employees
A blind person cannot read from a screen any more than from a printed page. Technologies nonetheless exist that allow blind and other disabled users impressively full-featured access to documents. To be considered “accessible,” however, document contents must be available to these assistive technologies.
To address the needs of visually impaired and other users who must employ assistive technology in order to read, the U.S. Congress passed Section 508, an amendment to the Rehabilitation Act. To read more about Section 508, see the website devoted to the issue at www.section508.gov.
Section 508 requires federal government agencies not only to procure accessible software, but also to produce accessible electronic documents. While the regulations went into effect in 2001, relatively few federal agencies have yet implemented Section 508 requirements across the full spectrum of applicable content. Many websites (the HTML portions, at any rate) now comply, but most of the PDF content, as yet, does not.
The regulations also apply to contractors that submit electronic documents to the federal government. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) decided in 2005 to make the hundreds of Federal Employee Health Benefit Providers step up to the plate. For the first time, OPM specified that providers must submit their 2006 Health Benefits Plan Brochures, containing all the details of federal employee health coverage, as accessible PDF files.
Section 508 itself is famously toothless, but OPM thought of an ingenious way to make these documents more accessible to millions of federal employees. They simply required participating health plans to obtain “Section 508 certification” for their brochures from a third party able and willing to certify a given PDF as accessible.
For OPM, it made perfect sense in the context of Section 508 to locate the burden of providing accessible content on the health-plan providers themselves. Generally, plan providers are pleased to improve the accessibility of these vital documents, and the more federal employees can answer their health-care coverage questions by simply reading the benefits brochure, the less time they’ll spend on the phone with the provider. Everyone wins.
OPM first required all participating health plan providers to re-deliver their 2005 brochures as 508-compliant PDFs in the spring of 2005. This exercise allowed providers to themselves develop PDF-tagging skills and find service providers capable of performing the work and certifying the end-product. The exercise also demonstrated to OPM the need for improved standards in this area, as the quality of the submitted files in accessibility terms varied significantly from provider to provider.
In September and October of 2005, the 2006 benefits brochures were processed to Section 508 compliance with greater success, and are now available online for reference by all federal employees – including (finally!) those requiring assistive technology to read.
IRS: Forms, barcodes, accessibility and Reader Extensions
Paul Showalter of the IRS likes to tell people that the first PostScript files ever created (they were hand-coded by Adobe Systems founder Dr. John Warnock) were actually IRS tax forms. Warnock reasoned that if his approach could handle the complexity of an IRS form, it could do anything.
IRS.gov was launched in 1995 specifically with the goal of delivering tax forms and other information products electronically, and PDF was the obvious format choice.
Through this site, IRS has made tax forms available as fill-in PDFs beginning in 1997, with every tax form made fill-in by 1999. IRS’s PDFs have been in continuous evolution since then, changing to make the work of filing, managing, delivering, processing and following-up on tax returns easier on both taxpayer and agency.
In 2000, IRS procured 130,000 licenses of Adobe Acrobat for use throughout the organization, and began a comprehensive program to maximize their utilization of the file format to reduce business-process costs.
As might be expected, Adobe has always thought it smart to pay attention to IRS’s needs and desires, and since 2000, PDF and Acrobat have added a host of new capabilities as a result.
With the dramatic rise in tax-preparation software, according to Showalter, “A lot of returns were being created electronically and then printed out to paper. So we said, why type it in twice?”
“In 2003, we began to accept a few forms that automatically convert typed information into barcodes to speed data collection,” says IRS’s Showalter. “We got about 1.5 million forms this way in the first year, about 8 percent of the total for those forms. That’s 1.5 million fewer forms our operators had to type in – an enormous savings,” he says. IRS now allows several barcode-enabled forms, including the ever-popular K-1, and plans to expand this offering in the coming tax year.
Ensuring content and forms are accessible to disabled users is a big priority for the IRS. Section 508 became the way government was supposed to work in June 2001, and IRS began to tag their forms to comply almost as soon as the software to do so became available. By 2005, more than 80 percent of IRS’s forms have been optimized for use with screen readers and other assistive-technology products for disabled users. They are available as comprehensively tagged PDF files from the Accessible Forms & Publications section of irs.gov.
The single most powerful change in PDF technology for IRS, however, has been Adobe’s LiveCycle Reader Extensions Server. This product “blesses” PDF files, making the form’s content saveable by those with only the free Adobe Reader.
“Reader Extensions is an amazing product for us,” Showalter says. “It revolutionizes how governments interact with their constituents. After we upload a blessed PDF, individuals can grab any form at all, take their time, fill it out over days, if necessary, send it back and forth with their accountant and so on. We’ll get it back in the most usable possible way and process it very quickly, and at minimal cost to the taxpayer.”
There’s not a lot the IRS doesn’t do with PDF.
Library of Congress: PDF/A for electronic document archives
The Library of Congress, as might be expected, puts a lot of thought into the archiving of documents, both paper and electronic. Spurred by the needs of the LOC and other government archivists, the standards-development body AIIM, set up the PDF/A Committee to initiate development of an ISO standard for archival applications for PDF files.
Essentially a subset of the PDF Reference, the publicly available technical “recipe” for PDFs, PDF/A delivers the specific technical information developers and archivist organizations need to develop software and workflows for electronic document archives.
The challenge is to ensure consistent presentation of both content and visual appearance for decades, if not centuries to come. By “future-proofing” fonts, colors, layout and other elements so document integrity remains independent of the software used to store or view the files, archivists of today and users of tomorrow may be assured that their content will remain searchable, retrievable, displayable and printable with consistent, predictable results, far into the future.
In fall 2005, the PDF/A standard was approved by the International Standards Organization. In the ISO press release announcing PDF/A, Susan Sullivan of the National Archives and Records Administration estimated that 9.2 percent of the Web consists of PDF documents. According to Sullivan, “PDF/A files will be more self-contained, self-describing, device-independent than generic PDF 1.4 files, and should allow information to be retained longer as PDF.”
In a recent interview with Standards Director Betsy Fanning of AIIM, Sullivan stated that NARA is now accepting submissions in PDF/A format. In the same interview, Stephen Abrams, the Digital Library Program Manager for Harvard University Library, says his organization supports the use of PDF/A, although for the moment they continue to use the existing digital archive standard TIFF format for in-house electronic content production. “As PDF/A-compliant tools become available, we would re-evaluate this practice and consider using PDF/A as an alternative format for representing electronic documents,” Abrams said.
by Duff Johnson