3 min read

As Governments Go Paperless, Will Vulnerable Constituents Be Left Behind?

By Jessie Kwak

There are a lot of reasons for a government  to go paperless.

It's cheaper. Processing an electronic payment, for example, can be about 10 times less expensive than printing a physical check. Then there's all that postage that could be saved by emailing notices and reminders instead of printing and mailing them.

It can save tons of time. Rather than manually entering information from paper applications into a database, organizations who've gone digital can automate that process, saving hours of time spent on data entry and manual searches for records.

The problem comes in ensuring that all your constituents have access to the technology they need to use your organizations paperless services: a bank account for direct deposit or electronic payment, a computer to access digital applications, a smartphone to use your 311 reporting app, and internet at home to search for information.

The paper lobby is understandably against the shift toward paperless government, but their interests aren't only self-serving. As governments make the important shift towards going paperless, they need to make sure no one is left behind.


Protect vulnerable groups

Reports from both the Census Bureau and Pew Research estimated that the number of Americans who had internet access at home was around 70 to 75 percent in 2010. It should come as no surprise that the percentage varied by population:

[Tweet "Only 42% of adults 65 and older have internet access at home @pewresearch"]

[Tweet "76.2% of non-Hispanic White households and 82.7% of Asian households reported internet use at home @uscensusbureau"]

[Tweet "Only 58.3% of Hispanic and 56.9% of Black households have access to the internet at home @uscensusbureau"]

It's some of the most vulnerable groups – the elderly, the poor, and minorities – who are most likely to not have internet access. So while the move to paperless government is crucial for organizations looking to save money and engage a younger generation of constituents, it's equally important to focus efforts on reaching out to these vulnerable populations in your district.


Make information widely available

Information needs to be made widely available in both electronic and paper format. Instead of focusing solely on "going paperless," organizations need to shift their focus to providing equal access to information for all demographics.

Digitized information has given governments a more widespread ability to reach their constituents than ever before – citizens can access government websites and receive important updates while on any device, from anywhere in the world.

But while organizations continue to expand their digital reach, the option needs to remain open for constituents to receive hard copies of information via post, or pick it up at the library or community center.


Provide technical support

For every person completely at ease with digital navigation, and every elderly citizen who has never learned to log on to a computer, there's a whole middle ground of constituents who may have the capabilities and infrastructure they need to take advantage of paperless government, but don't understand their options.

It's not enough to just put forms online and release shiny new apps without educating constituents on how to use them. Governments need to create user-friendly FAQs and tutorials, along with having a robust tech support team in place to guide people through the system if necessary.

 [et_bloom_inline optin_id=optin_0]

Don't "penalize" paper

While electronic communication, payment processing, and permitting may be the cheapest way to do business, it would be irresponsible for governments to transfer the costs of paper onto the constituents who don't have the skills and infrastructure to take advantage of them. Particularly since they tend to be  the most vulnerable.

The IRS has been criticized for doing just that, putting its filing instructions online and making paper copies available only to the tune of $25 per copy. Instead, government focus should be on educating and enabling citizens to take advantage of paperless options, rather than penalizing those who have no other choice.



While a private company can choose to suspend all paper mailings (or charge consumers who prefer to receive them), the government needs to continue to serve its constituents in all demographics, without forcing them to go without government services if they don't have access to the internet.

As the number of constituents with internet access and native ability grows, the financial and environmental costs of doing business in paper will diminish – but the process will take time. During the transitional phase, keep your focus on education, paying special attention to vulnerable populations.

The truth of the matter is that both systems will need to exist side-by-side for a time as governments make the shift to paperless operations.

Tags: Constituent Engagement, Government Efficiency