Transition to a Fully Digital Government: Digital Signatures

Still image from Video Recording of the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act showing President Clinton with a desktop computer.
Still image from Video Recording of the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act NAID 6850807

This blog post is the second in a series focusing on specific areas agencies should consider in their transition to fully digital government. 

Fully Digital Government and Digital Electronic Signatures

Since the passage of the Government Paperwork Elimination Act (GPEA) in 1998 and the Electronic Signatures In Global And National Commerce Act in 2000, digital signatures have been the preferred method of authenticating documents for the U.S. Government. 

There are different types of digital signatures including scans of wet-ink signatures, signatures drawn directly on computer screens by pens or fingers, X marks typed onto forms; or more sophisticated signatures that use public-key encryption and certificates that can show that a document has been changed since it was signed.

Screen Capture of Example Digital Signature from USPS.COM (
Screen Capture of Certificate-Based Digital Signature from SSA.GOV

Costs Related to Wet-Ink Signatures

However, many agencies continue to maintain business processes that include wet-ink signatures on printed copies of forms or documents. Once signed they are often scanned to create digital images of the records. This conversion from digital to paper and back to digital is inefficient, expensive and introduces risks to the authenticity of the records. NARA encourages agencies to determine if they can move to all-digital workflows that support electronic or digital signatures in place of wet-ink signatures. 

Agencies should consult with their General Counsel and Information Technology offices and conduct a cost-benefit analysis weighing the costs of converting to all-digital processes against the costs of digitizing to the standards in 36 CFR 1236 E to determine the appropriateness of transitioning to digital signature technology. 

Digitization Requirements When Maintaining Paper-Based Business Processes

M-23-07 requires that agencies migrate paper-based business processes, including those with wet-ink signatures,, to all-digital workflows incorporating digital signatures. 

When agencies have a legal requirement to maintain ongoing paper-based business processes related to wet-ink signatures, they should submit an exception request that includes a detailed explanation citing the relevant legislation.

Unless granted an exception, the agency must digitize these records according to the requirements in 36 CFR 1236 Subpart E. Agencies can dispose of the source records according to the instructions in GRS 4.5 after validating that they have complied with the requirements in that regulation. 

Deadline for Transfer of Permanent Analog Records

Agencies are encouraged to transfer their permanent analog records to a NARA Federal Records Center in advance of the June 30, 2024 deadline. After that date, NARA will only accept permanent records in digital formats with required metadata. 

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