Only 2 Percent of Forms on Federal Websites Comply With Law Requiring Agencies to Go Paperless, ITIF Analysis Finds

August 23, 2021

WASHINGTON—A mere 2 percent of more than 1,000 forms on federal websites fully comply with a 2018 law that requires executive agencies to transition from paper to web-based forms, according to a new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the leading think tank for science and technology policy.

The 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA) aimed to modernize government services in the digital era, but statutory deadlines for going paperless have now passed, and agencies have made little progress toward making their forms available in an accessible digital format. ITIF’s report calls on Congress to focus attention on agencies’ lack of progress to increase accountability and urges the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and executive agencies to take steps to fulfill the statutory requirements.

“Digital solutions hold enormous promise to transform U.S. government services,” said Ashley Johnson, a policy analyst at ITIF and co-author of the report. “These solutions can streamline outdated processes and provide Americans with faster, more convenient, and more personalized access to their government.”

The 21st Century IDEA requires web-based forms to be fully functional and usable on common mobiles devices. To assess compliance with the law, ITIF examined a random sample of up to 100 forms from each of the federal government’s 15 executive agencies, including sub-agencies and bureaus—a total sample of 1,348 forms. Among ITIF’s findings:

  • Only 2 percent of federal forms are fully compliant with 21st Century IDEA (24 forms out of the 1,348 sampled).
  • Only 78 percent of federal forms are partially compliant with the law, and of those, only 29 percent had a digital signature field, meaning users still have to print out the documents.

Mobile device users are unable to complete forms that are only available as a fillable PDF unless they install a third-party app or service. Agencies that exclusively make their forms available as fillable PDFs are not compliant with 21st Century IDEA.

Despite the legislative requirements, the federal government has yet to ensure that all executive-agency forms are functional and available on mobile devices. As Americans heavily rely on smartphones, the government needs to ensure that public-serving forms are compliant with the law. ITIF recommends several steps:

  • OMB should issue implementation guidance for 21st Century IDEA. The legislation required OMB to give guidance by June 18, 2019. Congress then again asked on May 6, 2021 to have the guidance by June 20, 2021. Those deadlines have passed, and without guidance it is likely the agencies will continue to struggle to fully comply with the 21st Century IDEA requirements.
  • Congress should hold oversight hearings on agencies’ compliance with 21st Century IDEA. The hearings should investigate the processes that agencies have made, the barriers they have faced in implementing the requirements, and what actions need to be taken to improve implementation. If the agencies are found not to have made sufficient progress, it should direct the Government Accountability Office to conduct an audit of agencies’ compliance with the law.
  • The federal Chief Information Officers (CIO) Council should create a web-based-forms task force to track and expedite compliance, prioritizing forms the general public uses the most. The web-based-forms task force would be able to mitigate the agencies’ lack of oversight and accountability, as well establish more coordination and best practices.
  • Congress should require agencies to report detailed information on their compliance with 21st Century IDEA’s forms requirements. Tracking agencies’ progress toward modernizing their forms is just significant as their overall progress toward upgrading their websites. The reports should include how agencies determine which forms are “related to serving the public,” how many have been made available digitally, and how many have not.
  • The Technology Modernization Board should issue grants to incentivize agencies to use login.gov. Login.gov provides more security to users when signing web-based forms. The Technology Modernization Fund, overseen by the Technology Modernization Board, should prioritize funding for agencies that submit proposals to create web-based forms that authenticate users with login.gov.
  • OMB should direct federal agencies to discontinue the use of fax machines. Fax machines demonstrate the government’s reluctance to modernize and replace paper-based forms, despite the ability to securely sign and send documents digitally. Any continued use of fax machines should be documented. The head of the agency should sign off for hiring contractors to provide fax services.

“Given the billions spent on IT modernization, it is unacceptable that Americans still need to print, scan, and fax government forms instead of easily completing them online,” said Daniel Castro, vice president of ITIF and co-author of the report. “By modernizing these forms, federal government agencies could reduce waste, increase efficiency, and improve data collection.”

Read the report.