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paperless lead

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The dream and the myth of the paperless city

In Chicago, one government finds it's not ready for an all-digital future

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When Rahm Emanuel took office as Mayor of Chicago in 2011, he asked his constituents for advice. What should he change about Chicago’s notoriously opaque government? How should he balance the budget? Which technologies should he embrace? He would take suggestions on a free, public website so that savvy Chicagoans could track ideas, note which ideas made it into policy, and which ideas were ignored. Citizens made thousands of suggestions. Though most revealed political gripes rather than sound advice — “Fire 25 Aldermen/women [to] save $50 million!” “SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT SHOULD BE WORKING FOR HIS MONEY!!” “Declare Gangs as Terrorists!” — others showed keen-eyed political promise.

Kyle Hillman’s suggestion showed enough promise, in fact, to get the 38-year-old political consultant, community organizer, and actor onto the evening news. It also got him a personal call from the mayor. As it turns out, Hillman’s suggestion wasn’t ground breaking. It actually seemed like a no-brainer — an idea that cities all over the country might like to try.

He suggested that the city should digitize.

“Set a goal to go completely paperless by 2015 in every department and every aspect of city government,” he wrote. “We waste countless dollars pushing paper around in an outdated and inefficient matter.” The mayor saluted him. This was in line with broader digital initiatives in the city — plans to make more public data available online, to make the city more efficient, to cut red tape.

Plus, Hillman had a point about paper waste. A 2010 Chicago Waste Characterization study showed that more than a million tons of the city’s overall garbage production — about 34 percent in total — came from paper alone.

But you can’t just flip a switch to reverse paper systems in place for hundreds of years, can you? Adobe first released its Portable Document Format nearly 20 years ago, yet many private companies, nonprofit organizations, libraries, law firms, courts — and yes, major city governments such as Chicago’s — have yet to embrace a world reliant on PDFs and devoid of paper records. Mayor Emanuel has agreed to change that. Or at least to try. In 2011, he announced plans to spend $20 million on efficiency improvements including changes to make the city less reliant on paper.

Will Mayor Rahm Emanuel change the way governments deal with paper? Or is the road toward a “completely paperless” government a long way off?

More than a million tons of the city’s overall garbage production — about 34 percent in total — came from paper alone

‘Permanent value’

Illinois’ most populated city — and the city likely using most of its paper, by far — is more than 200 miles from the state capitol. Springfield is a small city, home to about one- twenty-fifth the population of Chicago; if you gathered every single person who lives in Springfield today, you could just barely fill Soldier Field for two Bears games.

But if you make the four-hour drive from Chicago, you’ll find an incredible thing: a museum built to entomb the state’s most important governmental paper, the Illinois State Archives. When Hillman wrote that Chicago is “pushing paper around in an outdated and inefficient matter,” he likely wasn’t thinking about this museum. But perhaps he should have been. It represents every physical record the state can’t — or won’t — throw out. It's a mausoleum for paper. It's the opposite of “completely paperless.”

I borrowed a friend’s car to get there in October. Drove into Springfield from Chicago, through Champaign along Interstates 57 and 72.

The archives aren’t difficult to find. Situated behind the capitol museum, they’re in the twelve-story Margaret Cross Norton Building — a limestone-faced box behind maple trees and a manicured lawn. There are no windows above the second floor. The administrative secretary for the building sits behind an oak desk in the building’s lobby, not 10 feet from two security guards lounging contentedly next to perhaps the most stress-free metal detector I’ve ever gone through.

A longtime reference historian at the archives, John Reinhardt, meets me in the lobby. He’s 47-years-old, a little over six feet tall, with an average build, fair skin, and a trim goatee. His hair is short and balding, a light brown. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and is dressed in well-ironed black pants and a lime green shirt, a blackish tie around his collar patterned to look like a peacock feather. His voice is a deep baritone, his words calm and quiet. He’s worked here since 1987 and says the state archive is “the only professional life I’ve ever really known.” He got the job out of college after majoring in history at Eastern Illinois University. A professor recommended him for the gig.

From his wood-paneled corner office on the archive’s first floor, Reinhardt explains Illinois’ archival record-keeping process: A state records commission meets once per month, sifting through thousands of unused historical records to vote on which should be kept and which should be trashed. It’s a slow rummaging process, Reinhardt says. They hunt for government material with “permanent value.”

He’s a little vague about what that means. It involves “historical and legal” import mostly. He prefers to show me rather than try to explain.

It's a mausoleum for paper. It's the opposite of “completely paperless.”

We walk out of his office, into a brightly lit room with tall windows and high ceilings. We walk past an archivist sitting at a desk, eyeing lines of handwritten data in a boulder-sized book with yellowing pages.

Into another office we walk — its entrance doorless, its walls windowless, its square footage shared by three archivists not sitting at their paper-strewn desks. Then we’re through a door into a large room filled neatly with books on shelves and a central pathway through the stacks.

Through the stacks we go, past shelves upon shelves. Reinhardt stops at a stack, pulls out a rolling shelf and points to files from the Department of Energy and Natural Resources. “These had to be filed with the state,” he says — kind of ominously, I note — before pushing the shelf in and moving on to census records going back to 1818, when Illinois was admitted to the United States. We sift through these records and note the flimsy paper and the undoubtedly painstaking work done by archivists who, in many cases, do nothing but write down the archives’ contents. We continue to walk, take an elevator up to another floor.

In one set of stacks, there are eight years’ worth of registration information for hair-cutting apprenticeships through the Barbers’ Board of Examiners. There are four volumes of documents from a series of hearings in 1941 by the “State Commission to Investigate Living Conditions of the Urban Colored Population.” The official metal seal of the Board of Examiners of Horseshoers is under lock and key. Legislation signed by President Abraham Lincoln is held in special foot-thick steel cabinets on the sixth floor behind fire-safe doors in a climate controlled storage tank.

There are nuclear safety procedures, labor laws, plans for state hospitals. There are results from soil and water tests, political nominating petitions for independent and third parties, a file for each nursing student affiliated with Chicago State Hospital between 1918 and 1967.

The records, most housed in books and volumes with some neatly stacked in cardboard boxes, range from the bureaucratic and the banal to the unbelievably complex and fascinating. The files from the Department of Energy and Natural Resources Reinhardt mentioned? The ones that “had to be filed with the state”? They’re not for farming applications or something otherwise pedestrian. No, they’re the 1988 environmental impact statements from the Tevatron particle accelerator — the massive, now defunct Fermilab collider that helped to identify the likely existence of the Higgs boson “God particle” this summer. “We’ve got some pretty cool stuff in here,” he says.

“You can’t put that in a PDF.”

I ask Reinhardt to show me the weirdest record in the place. He shows me to a book on the fourth floor and opens it. “Look at this,” he says.

It contains a correctional record for Susan Lehew, a state prisoner locked up for larceny in 1876. The intake administrator at the Illinois State Penitentiary wrote at the time that Lehew’s hair was “yaller.” Later, Reinhardt guesses, a supervisor scrawled a weirdly mocking, passive-aggressive question on the paper: “Does the above mean that the girl is red headed, or that her hair is simply a kind of ‘yaller’?” The answer comes wordlessly, in physical form: a lock of Lehew’s blond hair sits to the right, preserved in a plastic sleeve labeled “Susan Lehew #9754A.”

“The hair was just sitting in the file when we found it,” Reinhardt says calmly, looking down at it. “You could scan that, I guess, but you miss something....” He struggles to find a word. “You just, I don’t know. You miss something,” he says. “You can’t put that in a PDF.”

The knowledge trap

When Kyle Hillman proposed his big idea for Chicago’s high-tech, completely paperless future, he did not suggest that Mayor Emanuel’s administration in Chicago should “make every single document in Chicago’s history paperless by 2015.” Instead, he suggests eliminating paper created in future government transactions. That means paying bills online, filing permit applications online, and also ensuring, for example, that all court actions are filed and administered digitally. His suggestion says nothing about the past and nothing about making old documents searchable and accessible online.

That’s an important distinction. Going through old documents and putting them through a scanning process is something done regularly at the Illinois state archives. But to give you an idea of how cautiously far behind they are, archive workers don’t generally scan documents to be digital files at all; they scan them to microfilm.


“The technology continually changes,” Reinhardt says. “The last 20 years, we’ve gone from those huge 5 1/4-inch floppy disks to the small floppies to CDs to DVDs to thumb drives. And if you’re not continually migrating all of this information to a format that’s usable, at some point you’re not going to be able to use it.” By way of example, he says, “We’ve got old reel-to-reel tapes upstairs. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with those, but they’re hard to come by.”

Digitizing’s great, Reinhardt says, in a way that suggests he doesn’t necessarily mean that. “But for a collection like ours, it’s almost impossible.”

First, “you have budgetary and staffing constraints” — meaning it’s tough to know who’s going to pay to digitize all these old files, how much money taxpayers are going to be willing to push forward for additional staffing, and what will be the ultimate gain when all these files are digital. Reinhardt points out that the Georgia state archives recently became almost impossible to publicly access and that we’re emerging from an economic recession that makes requesting archival funds difficult.

Second, he says, it’s just not always possible to take something old and brittle and convert it into ones and zeroes.

Plus, he says: “Sometimes the information on the paper isn’t as valuable as the paper itself.”

The archives’ main building — the Margaret Cross Norton Building — was constructed in 1938 to do nothing but store and protect that valuable paper. From the building’s official history:

“Prior to its construction, valuable military records were kept in the State Arsenal, located at the site of the present State Armory in Springfield. In February 1934, a 10-year-old boy set the Arsenal on fire, destroying many of the military documents and records. Following the fire, Secretary of State Edward Hughes supported legislation to construct the State Archives Building. The limestone-faced building was designed to protect the state’s records of enduring value from the hazards of fire, humidity, heat, vermin, theft and exposure.”

Scanning documents into a digital format doesn’t do enough to protect them and doesn’t ensure that they’ll be viewable hundreds of years into the future, Reinhardt says.

And no one's complaining. So why change?

no one's complaining. So why change?

The little things

I spent two years working at an Innocence Project in Pittsburgh. The job involved scouring thousands of letters from prisoners who claim they’re wrongfully convicted of the crimes that landed them behind bars and then writing journalism about the very few innocence claims that seem legitimate.

Reading these letters — and pursuing leads on promising cases — it’s clear that prisoners do not have access to the web or any other form of digital communication. This is for security reasons, we’re told by prison administrators. So every page of every trial transcript needs to be copied and mailed. There are literally thousands of pages of certain criminal trial transcripts and other assorted court documents. And all correspondence with prisoners happens via post, in actual physical letters. Mere conversations with prisoners can fill cubic feet of boxes with paper.

Prisoners are not the only group of people who use paper every day

Of course, prisoners are an aberration; there are 1.9 million people in lockup nationwide (PDF), which only amounts to about 0.6 percent of the overall U.S. population.

But, at least regarding paper use, maybe they’re not an aberration. Prisoners are not the only population lacking access to reliable computers with secure Internet connections. Prisoners are not the only population befuddled by the process of transforming a piece of paper into an image on a screen. Prisoners are not the only group of people who use paper every day.

The Myth of the Paperless Office is the quintessential book about paper in the digital world. Its authors — a cognitive psychologist, Abigail J. Sellen; and a digital researcher, Richard H. R. Harper, who now conduct research for Microsoft — point out that paper is just easier to use in some cases. For obvious reasons, they offer the collaborative process involved in writing a book as an example:

“[W]hen one of us finishes some work on a chapter, we print it out and hand it to the other. We read it, mark it up, and then discuss it by flipping through the marked-up pages together. There is the proofreading process: we print out the final version of each chapter to catch the surface-level errors (typos, spelling, and grammar) and, more important, to get a sense of the text and the way it flows. Finally, there is the importance of the paper as a tangible object. Ultimately, we want a bound volume in hand — a physical product that testifies to our efforts and that we can hand to family, friends, and colleagues.”

In a 2002 review of the book, Malcolm Gladwell romanticizes similar processes. In Gladwell’s view, an office devoid of paper is often unproductive. “In the tasks that face modern knowledge workers, paper is most useful out in the open, where it can be shuffled and sorted and annotated and spread out,” he writes. “The mark of the contemporary office is not the file. It's the pile.”

It’s a luxury, of course (and some might say it’s a waste), to print entire book chapters or make productivity piles in the office just so you can collaborate and edit with a pen rather than a cursor. And both The Myth of the Paperless Office and Gladwell’s review of it were both published a decade ago. So perhaps things have changed?

Apparently not.

Despite whatever we may think about digital advances and their influence on paper usage, the amount of paper used globally since 1980 has increased by about half. And books certainly aren’t going the way of the dodo; while ebooks have grown immensely in recent years, some paperback and hardcover book markets are still growing.

Maybe the cost benefit of going paperless simply doesn’t match the inconvenience of fundamentally altering everything we do with paper. What would it cost to eliminate whatever security concerns paper instills among prison administrators? What would it cost to recondition authors not to print chapters during the editing process? What would it cost to inspire office workers to collaborate in a different way?

While I’ve not read any comprehensive estimates about what it would cost to make a city such as Chicago “completely paperless,” Paul N. Courant and Matthew “Buzzy” Nielsen wrote an essay called, “On the Cost of Keeping a Book.” It’s on page 81 of this PDF. And it’s worth thinking about.

And going completely paperless may be more difficult than simply declaring a war on the tyranny of paper waste

Courant and Nielsen put the cost of storing a book in a high density library stack at $28.77 annually. It costs less than half that — around $13.10 — to store a book electronically in a redundant, backed up format that won’t be lost forever if a server unexpectedly catches fire or floods or otherwise loses data. There’s a cost savings in going digital, yes. But it’s an eventual cost savings. And it assumes libraries — or archives or government agencies — can acquire the funding and expertise necessary to introduce and then carry out a digital conversion. Easier said than done. As the authors point out: “Storing and providing access to electronic material is indeed expensive and poses many problems, both technical and economic.”

The Myth of the Paperless Office addresses the cost issue, too: In 2002, the authors cite “best estimates” showing that paper forms are the major paper expenditure in U.S. offices. At the time, an estimated $1 billion was spent on designing and printing those forms but between $25 and $35 billion was spent “maintaining, updating, and distributing” them. “[T]he cost of dealing with paper forms after they are produced vastly outweighs the cost of producing them,” the authors write. That means administrative costs, not material costs, are the main expense. So eliminating paper only solves a small piece of the money problem.

Which is to say Reinhardt’s funding shortage and his hesitancy about going paperless at the Illinois state archives is not unique. And going completely paperless — in prisons, in book publishing, and especially in a massive city government such as Chicago’s by 2015 — may be more difficult than simply declaring a war on the tyranny of paper waste.

In October, the Emanuel administration released its 2013 budget overview. It is 187 pages (PDF) of single-spaced text about how the City of Chicago plans to spend nearly $3 billion next year. It contains exactly one paragraph about paper, with no specific amount given for paperless expenditures and technology investments related to going paperless. It says, by 2013, “approximately 48,000 taxpayers are expected to file tax returns and real property tax declarations online.” The City will also “distribute employees’ statements of earnings and W2s electronically” by 2013, and employees will be able to scan “invoices and vouchers for electronic storage and retrieval.”

In all, that sounds good. Paperless payroll, online tax returns, electronic storage.

But speaking of aberrations: Consider that Chicago has 2.7 million residents. If 48,000 are filing online tax forms, that equals only 1.7 percent of the overall population. And the two major changes this year involve digital W2s and scanning invoices that have already been printed on paper.

I guess it’s the little things that matter.

A Chicago nonprofit group called the Uhlich Children’s Advantage Network or UCAN attempted to go paperless a few years back. Walter Grauer, Vice President of Information Technology at UCAN, says the group initially pursued a paperless office because UCAN wanted to “go green.” But they quickly realized they could actually save some money if they were more efficient.

“‘Going green’ is one thing, but it needs to have an added benefit for costs,” he says. “You need to be saving money as well as paper.”

What they found is that the biggest general wastes in their office were paper timesheets and people clicking “print” at their desktops and then forgetting to pick up what they’d printed from the printer. The answer: Electronic timesheets. And now employees are required to physically stand up and push a button on the printer if they want to print something; they need to click print twice — once at their desktop, once at the printer itself.

With small changes, Grauer says they reduced their printing output by about 300,000 sheets of paper every month. They print a lot of paper — 300,000 is about seven percent of their monthly output — but still, he says: “It saved some cash, definitely.”

The payoff

“You'd be naive to think that there's not going to be some initial expense involved in going paperless,” Kyle Hillman admits. “But you're not just talking about saving money on paper. You’re looking at secondary costs, storage, printing, transporting, technology failure. When you look at the long term cost, it’s clear you're saving money by reducing reliance on paper.”

Hillman also points out that eliminating forms and bringing more services online could make business processes easier for savvy business owners in the city — something the Emanuel administration says it wants to encourage.

“You can't move forward with technology in government if you’re redundantly moving around multiple copies of pieces of paper,” he says. “To me, it’s shocking that we’re still talking about forms.”

But Hillman also acknowledges that there are major roadblocks. Cost is less an issue, he surmises, than overcoming the governmental status quo.

To make a paperless government work, “you would need a paradigm shift,” Hillman says. “You have entire departments — the fire department, the Department of Revenue — that run with their paper. This is how they do things. So when you shift to a paperless government, you have major staffing changes. You have people saying, ‘Well this is not how we do this.’ So that’s going to be the biggest hangup.”

But it may be more than a mere hangup.

“You can't move forward with technology in government if you’re redundantly moving around multiple copies of pieces of paper”

Dr. David Y. Miller at the University of Pittsburgh worked in city governments for years and now lectures on regional governance, urban public finance, the law and politics of local government, and theories of public management.

There are parallels with efforts to “go green” elsewhere, he says.

“In essence, you have to be able to demonstrate that the reduction also has a financial payoff,” he says. “In a recession, governments are not going to make all the needed investments.”

Furthermore, he says, politicians have term limits. And while a reduction in paper use can be a positive thing, it might take a while. Mayor Emanuel, for example, is up for reelection in 2015. Retooling a large city’s approach to paper in three years might be tough.

“It’s one thing for the mayor of a large city to promise to try and make things a little easier for people, to make it more convenient,” he says. “But you’ve gotta keep in mind that these are extraordinarily large and complicated bureaucracies. Going into the code enforcement department, for example, and spending millions on new technology and training and retooling — it’s a huge expense and it’s going to disrupt the process. So unless there’s a really huge financial benefit, it’s high risk. And the process is going to be very gradual.”

The monetary gain, he says, is just too small to advocate forcefully for spending money on less paper.

“It’s difficult to justify the initial investment,” he says. “There’s no way to say that it’s going to produce a huge return on investment in technology.”

In other words, there’s no way to say going paperless is going to pay off.

Photo of Chicago courtesy Bernt Rostad

Photo of warrant courtesy the US Marine Archive