1. The most profound way that Western governments (and this is spreading to democratic governments around the world) are influencing the future of publishing is their new enthusiasm for electronic documents. There are excellent reasons for their excitement as I’ll discuss below, and reveal further in the References section.
(a) Electronic documents are inexpensive — they don’t have to be printed and mailed. The Internet greatly reduces (in most cases) the cost of doing business with government agencies.
(b) The Web makes access to government information instant (when desired) and universal (if you don’t own a computer, go to the library). Governments agencies at all levels (at least in an ostensible democracy), recognize that this type of broad communication is implicit in their mandate. Paper distribution was never as effective.
(c) Electronic documents can be made available much more easily and inexpensively to the handicapped. This is an increasing priority for all public agencies.
2. The result is that government agencies are embracing electronic documents and Internet communication with a near-frenzy. This sets a pace that all corporate and NGO (Non-Governmental Organizations) publishers find themselves strongly encouraged to follow.
How the U.S. Government is Impacting the Future of Publishing
The single most important (and historic) moment for Western governments taking an active role in embracing electronic publishing was the 1998 enactment of the U.S. “Government Paperwork Elimination Act“. Its stated purpose, according to the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) implementation guidelines is that “GPEA seeks to ‘preclude agencies or courts from systematically treating electronic documents and signatures less favorably than their paper counterparts’, so that citizens can interact with the Federal government electronically,” while also “minimiz(ing) the paperwork burden for individuals, small businesses, educational and nonprofit institutions…”
Just shortly after authorizing the GPEA, the U.S. Government, during the Clinton administration, enacted what is referred to as “Section 508“: “…amend(ing) the Rehabilitation Act to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities.”
These two acts, although still being implemented, send a clear signal to all publishers that electronic document distribution is the future direction for the communication of essential information. Large businesses quickly follow directives such as these, and the trickle-down effect is unmistakable.
What is the State of Implementation of the GPEA?
There is a shortage of information available on how fully the GPEA has been implemented. Anyone who has visited a U.S. government Web site recently will see that there’s still work to be done. The deadline was October 21, 2003 ‒ that deadline has obviously been missed. Yet the task was so enormous that a five-year window was surely insufficient.
The only information I’ve uncovered on the topic is an October 2003 interview on CNET with Ray Wells, “IBM’s top software executive in Washington, D.C.” Mr. Wells appears to be both an optimist and a pragmatist. My favorite quote is in response to interviewer Charles Cooper’s question “How long before they reach full compliance?”
Wells replies, “That’s like asking, ‘How beautiful is your wife?’ It all depends on how we define full compliance. I’d be cautious about making a value judgment. I’m not sure that I’ve seen any data to indicate how far along they are, but I think that considerable progress has been made, and as technologies such as Web services become more ubiquitous, you’ll see even better compliance.”
Wells notes also that “you take a component that was built in the 1960s, a component built in the ’70s and a component built in the ’80s — you have to build the flows between those things to mask the complexity of the different applications with a simple portal interface.”
Those of us who have been involved in complex system integration projects can easily recognize the accuracy of Mr. Wells’ observation.
When all is said and done clearly Western governments everywhere are committed to the notion of eGovernment, and this is having, and will continue to have, a profound influence on the future of publishing.
1. There’s a U.S. government website for the PRA: Paperwork Reduction Act:. A Google search of course reveals a wealth of additional citations on the topic of the GPEA, some on an agency-by-agency basis, but this is not a bad place to start.
2. The up-to-date official U.S. government website with everything you need to know about the Section 508 accessibility law is found here. It has tremendous depth and a wealth of links.
3. There’s a good site out of Australia with accessibility resources.