The Paper Chase: Managing Files With Radio Frequency Identification Technology in Government

File management is a persistent problem – and a critical issue – at all levels of government. RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) can help solve the problem of locating and securing paper files, improving government service delivery, aiding worker productivity, and most of all, saving the taxpayer money.

RFID can solve the problem of locating and securing files, improving government service delivery and worker productivity and saving the taxpayer money.

Introduction: The Paper Chase

We’ve all seen it. Despite our push for “paperless offices” and the wonders of pdf files and the ability to store and back-up terabytes of information, all our work, all our projects, and indeed, all our lives, often come down to the ability to find a simple folder – the one that is critical to us at the time. For all government agencies – from giant federal departments in Washington, DC to the police departments in the smallest communities – manila folders are omnipresent, central to how they operate – even in the era of e-Government. File a claim, there’s a folder. Make a complaint, there’s a folder. Need a project approved, there’s a folder. Commit a crime, there’s a folder. You get the picture.

The Real Cost of Lost Files

File management is a critical issue for any public sector agency to operate effectively. And much of the time, government workers are unable to find the file they need when they need it, causing not just a headache for the staff but, more importantly, a service delivery failure that can have very real consequences and costs for citizens. Recent studies have shown that the average public sector office worker spends several hours each week simply searching for critical files and documents. In fact, current estimates say file searching consumes between 8% and 12% of the average employee‘s workday – costing taxpayers billions of dollars in lost productivity of government workers. Indeed, one analyst categorized the situation as one of “naked inefficiency,” as not only is there wasted productivity, but also additional costs incurred from having to recreate lost files and litigation stemming from lost files. And this is in normal times. In the past few years, we have also had high profile reminders that both negligent acts of humans and “acts of God” can wreak havoc with government file management.

According to an October 2006 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, staff in fourteen of the busiest district offices of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) had lost track of well over 100,000 files of non-US citizens. These fourteen offices not only handle over two-thirds of all non-citizen naturalization cases, but also maintain files on all individuals detained at the US border. The problem was so bad that an audit of the agency’s San Diego district office found that over 20% of the district’s files were not in the location shown in the computerized file management system. The report uncovered the fact that US citizenships had been granted to over 30,000 individuals whose files had been lost in the USCIS system, including at least one man with documented ties to the Islamic militant group Hezbollah. This caused a firestorm of controversy on Capitol Hill, with Susan Collins (R-Maine) calling it “unthinkable” that the US would grant citizenship to a potential terrorist “simply because they can’t find the person’s file.”

The District of Columbia’s Disability Compensation Program has a long-standing problem with file mismanagement, causing injured workers’ claims to be delayed for years at a time and prompting a class action suit that cost the municipal government millions in 2005. In an expose in the Washington City Paper, Muranda Willis, an injured school bus driver who had to fight the agency for five years to receive compensation from a severe accident, commented: “You just don’t know how low and dirty these people are. I mean, they put my file in a corner. The [claims representative] told me, ‘Oh, your file was in a corner. It had dust on it!’ Laughing. And I didn’t think that was funny.

Losing Track of the Paper Trail

In April 2005, Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, President Clinton’s former National Security Adviser, pleaded guilty to surreptitiously removing and intentionally destroying original, uncopied classified documents and reports from the National Archives and Records Administration. These records dealt with the Clinton Administration’s handling of terrorism and Bin Laden, and experts contend that Berger’s actions – sneaking out the documents under his pants and socks on several visits to the National Archives – hampered the ability of the 9/11 Commission’s investigation into the President Clinton’s response to the looming terrorism threat prior to January 2001.

In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, the loss of paper files proved to have long-standing consequences. The Internal Revenue Service Regional Council in New York City (housed in World Trade Center Building 7, which was the third building to collapse on 9/11) lost its paper files, setting back numerous investigations being conducted out of the IRS’s New York office. Likewise, the US Secret Service had its largest field office sited in Building 7, with more than 200 employees, all of whom survived the attack.

Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the justice system across not just New Orleans, but the Mississippi Coast as well. In both areas, not only were court records and evidence files destroyed by the storm surge flooding, but with many private attorneys losing all of their case files to high water, the court systems are still recovering. In many cases, criminal cases – including charges of murder, rape and robbery – have had to be dropped against defendants or plea deals have had to be negotiated to lesser charges, due to the inability to locate key files and evidence in the wake of the storm.

Tracking of Key Importance

All of this points to the critical importance for government agencies to have accurate file management systems in place to enable staff to have knowledge of where a file is at any given moment. Today, pioneers in the public sector are building upon the file management practices being established in the legal community to use RFID to better manage their “sea of manila folders.” Due to the critical nature of file management in their operations, law firms have begun using systems from 3M, FileTrail, and other vendors to manage the flow of files throughout their offices. Using passive RFID tags attached to file folders and readers located at desks and doorways of offices, such RFID-based systems can keep accurate inventory of file locations and pinpoint the location of needed files in an instant. Law firms that have implemented such systems have seen dramatic reductions in the time and manpower required to manage and audit files and to locate missing case folders, making the ROI on such installations quite attractive – usually within a year. In doing so, they have largely eliminated the “missing file conundrum,” helping to gain buy-in from sometimes skeptical attorneys who see their own jobs made better through the systems.

In the public sector, the most important development to date has been the General Services Administration (GSA) awarding of a five-year schedule contract to 3M. This GSA schedule award means that federal agencies can purchase 3M’s RFID File-Tracking System at a low price, and without having to go through a bidding process with multiple vendors. To date, three federal agencies have done so. These are the US Department of Justice, the US Tax Court, and the Idaho National Laboratories.

For example, the US Tax Court wanted to improve the way it tracks more than 100,000 case files, along with its library of periodicals and books. In the Tax Court’s application, staffers began by applying 3M’s 13.56 MHz, 2-by-2-inch passive RFID labels on each file folder, periodical and book the court wanted to track. The labels are embedded with tags containing Texas Instruments’ Tag-It chip. Encoded to each tag is a unique ID linked to information about the attached file, periodical or book. This data is stored in the 3M file-tracking software.

The Tax Court’s system works in a manner similar to that of a library. A staff member looking to check out a file or other media provides an RFID personnel card to a fixed-position interrogator, located in the filing area or library, presenting the items to be checked out. Those items are then linked to that staff member in the 3M tracking software, which other personnel can access to see who might have particular items. Tax Court workers use a handheld 13.56 MHz interrogator to take inventory of all tagged file folders, books and periodicals in the court. The collected tag IDs are downloaded to the tracking software, which generates a list of tags not read yet not checked out by staff.

The court can then set the handheld interrogator to seek out these IDs during a second inspection of the filing area and library. With the twin pushes for greater file security and improved citizen service, along with the success to date of these first implementations and the ease of purchasing the 3M system through the GSA contract, we should expect to see wide-scale growth of such RFID-based file tracking systems in the federal government over the next few years.

Implementation on a Local Scale

At the state and local levels, we are also seeing early implementations across the US, with innovative executives looking to RFID-based file tracking of “mission critical” files. At the local level, most of the reported implementations of such RFID-based file tracking have been in the judicial area. In Marin County, California, just outside of San Francisco, the District Attorney’s Office had a seemingly intransigent problem with case files that would go missing. York Westgate, the senior technology support analyst for the agency, estimated that they were spending 2,000-3,000 man-hours each year simply tracking down files. He commented that: “We knew instinctively we were losing files…We’d have two or three e-mail blasts a day asking if we had seen a specific file. I knew there had to be a way technology could help and yet not be too costly or difficult to implement.”

With limited resources, Westgate had to find a solution that was not only cost-effective, but would be compatible with the county’s complex database program used by many law enforcement organizations in the county. After implementing the 3M system, Westgate reports: “Our benefits are primarily peace of mind, but there are definitely financial gains, including not having to dedicate personnel to file searching. Now I get only one or two e-mails a week asking about a file’s whereabouts, instead of several inquiries a day.”

Likewise, in Prince George’s County, Maryland (suburban Washington, DC), the Seventh Judicial Circuit Court has implemented a system from FileTrail to track its case files, which number up to 40,000 annually. Now, with successful implementation in this circuit, the County is looking at implementing the FileTrail system in other circuits.

Florida State University in Tallahassee has recently become the first educational institution to implement RFID-based file tracking, as its Office of Sponsored Research and Sponsored Research Accounting Services has installed 3M’s RFID file tracking system. According to Judy Hefren, FSU’s Assistant Director of Sponsored-Research Accounting Services, these offices oversee more than 1,200 active research projects, which produce approximately $200 million in grants annually. In support of this effort, the university maintains more than 3,000 project files, to which more than 40 employees have routine access. Hefren recently commented: “Looking for the file that’s critically needed by one person, but is in the possession of someone else, is not a productive way to spend valuable time. A missing file can delay an invoice or interrupt the progression of a project. And with so many people having simultaneous access to thousands of files, the potential for inefficiency is high. We were determined to address that problem.” Florida State thus stands as an early leader in state government use of such file management systems.

Time to Put Systems in Place

This is an exciting application area, both from the user perspective and the RFID vendor perspective. Government agencies across the board – not just those dealing with legal issues – will need to seriously examine how such RFID-based file tracking systems can be applied in their organizations. From healthcare to education to public assistance, government agencies are being held to higher standards for data security and higher expectations in terms of service delivery. RFID-based file tracking can deliver the goods in these areas, while also making good business sense from an ROI standpoint, especially when taking into account the lost man hours that it takes to find misplaced or simply misfiled folders. Thus, we can expect more and more vendors to target the government marketplace, adapting systems from other retail and library applications for file management tasks.

Conversely, experience and lessons learned in the public sector environment may then enable vendors to craft more and more exciting solutions for file management in other private sector applications. As prices drop on such systems, they will be within range of even the smallest firms. As such, we may see the days of lost files – paper ones at least – become a thing of the past.


David C. Wyld is the Robert Maurin Professor of Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, and executive educator. His blog, Wyld About Business, can be viewed at He also serves as the Director of the Reverse Auction Research Center (, a hub of research and news in the expanding world of competitive bidding. Dr. Wyld also maintains compilations of works he has helped his students to turn into editorially-reviewed publications at the following sites: