When Paperwork Attacks! Five Ideas for Smarter Government

By / 3.16.2012

In the minds of many Americans, “government” is synonymous with “red tape,” “bureaucracy” and “paperwork.”

And no wonder.

According to the government’s own estimates, American people and businesses collectively spent 8.8 billion hours dealing with federal paperwork requirements in 2010. That’s equal to nearly 367 million days and more than one million years.And while this figure is down from 2009, it’s still 1.4 billion hours more than what people and companies spent on government paperwork in 2000.

Make no mistake: Paperwork is absolutely essential to the basic functions of government. It ensures compliance with health and safety regulations and the proper collection of taxes. It’s the only way for the government to gather information about its citizens and determine who is eligible for such crucial programs as Medicare and Social Security. It’s also an important avenue for Americans to get more information about the services and benefits government provides. As a consequence, policymakers should avoid the “meat cleaver” approach to reducing paperwork.

Nevertheless, there’s a difference between “smart” paperwork (paperwork that is as painless and efficient as possible) and plain old red tape. And too much of the latter still exists. The amount of time demanded from companies and citizens for paperwork compliance should be as precious to the government as the tax dollars it collects.

Modern technology can provide more effective, efficient and tree-friendly means for government to communicate with citizens or for companies to comply with regulatory requirements. As an example, allowing the “e-delivery” of just some annual retirement plan documents would conservatively save as much as $60 million in printing costs a year, in addition to 11,600 trees.

Fortunately, the Obama administration recognizes the problems posed by burdensome paperwork, and in January 2011, the president issued an executive order aimed at reviewing and pruning paperwork requirements.

To supplement that effort, this memo offers up five ideas for reforming paperwork—not only to save work and paper, but to improve the effectiveness of how government, people and companies interact with each other so that the public benefits.

Five ideas for a more modern government with less paper and less hassle:

  1. Removing obstacles to small business success. Waive the first year of quarterly tax filing requirements for start-ups and small businesses.
  2. Helping savers make better retirement decisions. Allow default e-delivery of 401(k) statements and retirement plan documents.
  3. Helping taxpayers understand their benefits. Resume delivery of Social Security Statements by email and add a “Medicare Statement.”
  4. Facilitating job creation. Fast-track paperwork reduction efforts with the best potential for job creation and require estimates of economic impact.
  5. Building a more responsive government. Create a “silver scissors” challenge to solicit and reward citizens’ ideas for creative (and effective) paperwork reduction strategies.

Read the entire brief.