Public Services > Central Government

The end of paper: the leveraging of PDF in government

Published 27 October 2017

As paper records acceptance reaches the end of the line, Duff Johnson, executive director of the PDF Association, considers the future of the Portable Document Format in government agencies


It had to happen sometime.

Paper (and before it, papyrus), has served as the medium of documentation for thousands of years. Today, vast areas of offices and storage facilities are dedicated to the preservation of these records for business operations and archival purposes.

NARA (The National Archives and Records Administration), the final depository for the long-term records generated by all other agencies of the U.S. federal government, has a key role in preserving the cultural history of the republic as well as in maintaining and making accessible those operational records of government deemed of sufficient value for long-term archiving.

According to NARA’s newly-released draft strategic plan, the agency will stop accepting paper records at the end of 2022. All submissions after that date will need to be electronic.

There are two distinct types of responses available to government agencies.

Option 1: ECM system dump

A typical approach to the elimination of paper for long-term records-keeping is a continued investment in ensuring that existing Enterprise Content Management / Document Management (ECM / DM) systems are capturing all aspects of current workflows. Internal processes may thus continue using paper or electronic document workflows, but any paper is always “resolved” via scanning or other means into electronic rather than physical filing cabinets. These, along with whatever indexing model the agency uses, may then be provided wholesale to NARA in order to fulfil the “no paper” mandate.

Option 2: Electronic document technology

A more advanced approach to going paperless leverages the conventional ECM / DM model for records retention, but then expands on it by way of exercising the capabilities of the medium for electronic document - PDF.

Most ECM implementations treat Portable Document Format or 'PDF' documents as electronic equivalents of paper. This isn’t wrong; part of PDF’s core value is the ability to smoothly interoperate with paper workflows. Users can print a PDF page, sign it, and scan it back into an electronic document, satisfying a need for a paper-based process recorded by electronic means.

However, there’s a lot more capability in PDF than simply mimicking the functionality of paper. Indeed, PDF includes features of such depth and power that it’s possible to base an entire records-management practice on the leveraging of the Portable Document Format.

What to know about PDF

The first and most crucial feature of PDF technology is also the most subtle. PDF is ISO-standardised under the name ISO 32000. That means that PDF is a completely open, non-proprietary technology. Any vendor may choose to support any PDF feature. As a practical matter PDF has such a vast repertoire of features that no single vendor - not even PDF’s inventor, Adobe Systems, supports every single one of PDF’s capabilities. Still, the significance of ISO standardisation cannot be understated. Any investment in PDF technology is transferrable across platforms and across vendors.

Focus on the medium

Paper earned its role as the medium for records-keeping for a wide variety of reasons, including flexibility, durability and a degree of tamper-resistance. PDF includes (and improves on) all these capabilities, but it is the true power-features of PDF itself that offer a revolution in document management. Let’s look at a few.

Digital signatures

At one level it’s obvious that PDF documents may be signed. For most users and workflows, after all, it’s enough to ink your John Hancock on the dotted line; the result may be mailed, faxed or scanned. This model remains typical for workflows that involve documents (as opposed to database records).

PDF, however, adds a wide variety of capabilities to digital signatures that go far beyond a one-time statement of approval. In PDF, digital signatures may be used to verify that users have the authority to sign, and signatures may be validated or even revoked after signing, if necessary. Digital signatures are used to tamper-proof documents and workflows, and in the latest version of the ISO standard for PDF, include LTV (Long Term Validation) and document time-stamping signature features as well as full CADES-compliance, the most current digital signature standard.

Requiring only the establishment of processes for creating, securing and maintaining digital identities, digital signatures for PDF documents offers the potential to eliminate paper from document workflows while improving process awareness, improving accountability and reducing costs.

File attachments

Besides page-images, PDF documents may include other files of any type. With PDF 2.0, it’s possible to include source files, databases, images, JSON, 3D files or any other type of data, and associate it with the PDF in a way that document management systems can really use.

The ZUGFeRD electronic invoicing model that’s taking off in Europe is proving that PDF/A-3 files containing an XML iteration of the human-readable PDF’s contents can automate invoice processing while accommodating the full gamut of variety in workflows, including those with little or no automation in effect to-date.

Automated invoices are only one possibility; the workflow potential for attached and associated files in PDF is both deep and wide. From the ability to package files together in a single document to automated auditing and advanced search functionality, PDF file attachments allow for rich new workflows (for example, distribution of 3D models together with 2D documentation), support for 3rd party proprietary systems, and much more.


Federal agencies are already obliged to provide documents internally and externally in a manner that accommodates users who require assistive technology such as screen-readers in order to read.

Unlike TIFF images, the typical fodder of today’s document management systems, PDF files may be “tagged” for accessibility to disabled users. Tagging provides a number of other benefits as well, including enhanced searchability and high-quality repurposing of PDF content in web-browsers and for other purposes.

The global electronic document format

The power of PDF technology derives from the fact that it’s a globally-accepted international standard for electronic documents. PDF is so central to the concept of the electronic document that other ISO standards have been developed to guide PDF implementations in a wide variety of applications, including PDF/A (for archiving), PDF/E (for engineering applications, including 3D data), PDF/UA (for accessibility), and more. In many cases, these so-called “subset” standards are already required or recommended by government and other institutions around the world.

As of 2017, PDF simply has no competition, and there’s no successor technology on the horizon, even in concept. Any technology that might replace PDF would also need to support all of PDF’s capabilities - and since there’s already PDF, there’s little incentive to invent an alternative.


PDF Day  events are educational events held around the world by the non-profit  PDF Association . The next PDF Day will be held at the National Archives building in Washington DC on January 29, 2018, and is designed for those planning their records-management strategies for the next 10 years.

Duff Johnson is the project leader for the ISO standard for PDF and executive director of the non-profit PDF Association, an industry group dedicated to promoting standards-based applications of PDF technology





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