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Why Digitizing Professional Licensing is Critical in the Time of Social Distancing... and All Times

Today, one in four workers – or about 40 million individuals – require government approval via a license to perform their jobs.

In 1960, only one in 20 U.S. jobs required a professional license. Today, one in four workers – or about 40 million individuals – require government approval via a license to perform their jobs. That means states need to process millions more professional licenses today than ever before. At the same time, the public expects government’s level of service to be as good as or better than they receive from commercial organizations.

This year, the landscape changed dramatically as concern over the spread of COVID-19 caused a massive and sudden shift to a remote workforce. This shift has huge implications for professional licensing. In a work-from-home world where government offices are suddenly closed, government workers are remote, and there’s no one around to check the mail, an analog licensing process is simply no longer feasible. This is especially critical because healthcare workers – who need professional licenses to work – are on the front lines of fighting this disease. More barriers created by an inefficient process are the last thing we need.

In fall 2019, we commissioned a study with the Center for Digital Government (CDG) to evaluate the availability and accessibility of professional licensing applications throughout the 50 states. Each state’s processes were assessed to see how professional licensing documents, forms and other agreements can be accessed, signed and submitted by the public. Some interesting highlights from the study:

  • 27 out of 50 states lack an online portal or capability of signing and submitting forms online
  • Mobile document/form signing is largely overlooked among state agencies
  • Leading states (e.g. Washington, Ohio) offer one online portal for all professional licensing
As the survey indicates, there is huge potential for improvement, especially because the number of jobs that require a professional license continues to grow. For example, most healthcare jobs require a license, and employment in healthcare occupations alone is projected to grow 14 percent between 2018 and 2028 . To handle this onslaught -- especially because government agencies generally can’t add staff – the processes involved need to become much more efficient.

Strategic use of technology is one way to streamline professional licensing. As mentioned earlier, our survey found mobile document access and form signing are still largely overlooked by state agencies. Yet as more people use mobile devices, offering mobile access to documents and the ability to sign documents using a mobile device is a critical component of “meeting the customer where they’re at.” For example, I recently purchased a new home. I signed most of the documents required for that purchase using DocuSign and my mobile phone. Enabling similar methods can help government agencies streamline processes, lower costs and reduce reliance on paper.

Similarly, states can move the entire professional licensing application process online. According to the CDG survey, only 21 states currently allow people to submit professional licensing forms online. When doing so, states should ensure the entire process is truly online-enabled. Replacing a paper process with a virtual paper process is not going to move the bar in terms of improving efficiency. If applicants still have to print, hand sign documents and then upload them, you aren’t necessarily improving the experience. But if a state can fully digitize the process, allowing applicants to fill out a form online, digitally sign it and submit it electronically, they’ve made progress. A process like renewing a license – where the state entity already has an applicant’s vital details in their database – is typically an easy place to start. Once states move these processes online, sudden and unexpected disruptions like the COVID-19 outbreak will no longer bring activities like professional licensing to a standstill.

The CDG study also found most states rely on decentralized licensing processes. Each occupation tends to have its own professional board responsible for reviewing information and issuing licenses. But because each board’s processes are similar, there’s an opportunity to leverage economies of scale and create a more efficient, centralized process. For example, Washington state took a unique approach to licensing and developed one unified e-licensing portal for drivers, vehicles and professional licenses. The Washington Department of Licensing, as it’s known, now manages over 300,000 professional licenses for individuals and businesses each year. Ohio took a similar approach.

It’s also worth noting that professional licensing is a key way governments raise revenue. According to data from the U.S. Census of Governments, licensing and permitting fees account for around six percent of state budgets on average. In states that don’t have an income tax, that percentage can be as high as 40 percent. States that make their licensing and permitting processes more seamless and digital can raise more revenues faster while improving the licensee experience.

The good news is, modernizing professional licensing isn’t difficult. If you take the time to reimagine how the process works and how technology can help, you’ll see how some straightforward changes can enable your agency to spend more time delivering services and less time focused on paperwork.

You can learn more about what leading states are doing to digitize professional licensing in our whitepaper.

i National Council of State Legislators Occupational Licensing Project, ii U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, iii Washington Department of Licensing,