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COVID-19 and the Case for Digital Transformation in Government

Digital data flow on road with motion blur to create vision of fast speed transfer . Concept of future digital transformation , disruptive innovation and agile business methodology .

Four key points for digital transformation and IT modernization projects.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic there have been several significant changes in the way government services are provided. Even before the pandemic, numerous initiatives for digital transformation were either being proposed or implemented to replace outdated processes, though these were stymied due to factors such as limited budgets, legacy systems and bureaucracy. However, the unique challenges posed to government services in continuing to provide essential public services during the pandemic means that these initiatives have been accelerated. Overnight, the need to offer effective digital services in the absence of face-to-face options went from a luxury to a necessity.

Modern digital document workflows will be especially important in light of the recently signed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure package is to upgrade the nation’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports, broadband and other public works, and has been in the works for some time. In particular, significant amounts are earmarked for cybersecurity and digital equity, which makes sense with the recent increased need for digital access to services across the U.S.

However, with the great opportunities this will generate also comes great responsibility to identify, fund, design and build these projects. Localities will be busy issuing permits, plans and inspections; exchanging and signing contracts; and much more over the course of utilizing these funds. This will naturally also produce masses of extra paperwork – not just from the local implementation of these upgrades, but also at a federal level in directing the funding to localities across the country. Being able to effectively process these documents and the data they contain through IT modernization will be crucial.

Even though many government buildings have reopened, the importance of digital services for citizens has not waned. The National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) annual survey of state CIO priorities for both 2020 and 2021 saw digital services reach the No. 2 spot behind cybersecurity. When you add the Biden administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the dedicated funds for cybersecurity and reducing the digital divide with $65 billion directed toward broadband deployment, the case for IT modernization and the digital transformation of government agencies at a state, federal and local government level has been conclusively proven.

Here at iText, we know a thing or two about these kinds of digital transformation and automation projects. For over 20 years, the iText PDF library has been used to create and manipulate PDF documents by banks, corporations and governments worldwide. The current version of the iText library, iText 7 Core, features a suite of add-ons to enable intelligent data extraction, secure redaction of confidential information, optical character recognition and much more. Whether you need to create PDF documents from scratch, or get data into or out of a PDF, we’ve got you covered.

Government agencies have a special interest in PDF technology for a variety of reasons, but the primary one is that the history and characteristics of PDF have made it the default format for official government documents, and end users are comfortable and familiar with PDF documents. PDF is therefore an essential part of modernizing document workflows, and meeting government regulations and requirements for accessibility and long-term archiving, as we shall see.

Since the pandemic, government agencies have moved away from maintaining legacy processes, instead using IT funds to modernize and digitize their operations. iText believes when moving toward a modernized system, four components should be kept in mind.


The first place to start is knowing when a process needs modernization. The obvious answer is if the process isn’t offered in some digital capacity, it is probably time to replace it. It’s not quite that simple though. There are numerous ways you can tell that a process is outdated.

  1. Is this system capable of integrating with other systems?  
  2. Is the system up to modern security standards? 
  3. Is the system cost-effective and efficient? 
  4. Is keeping the system compliant with regulations difficult? 
  5. Does this create a faster and overall better experience for citizens or clients? 

Think about an agency that mails out physical copies of forms. This process from start to finish can take weeks to months on end, resulting in it being wasteful in time and resources. It lacks security for the citizen as there is no reasonable way to secure their data or gate who has access to the forms. Paper forms are hardly ideal for accessibility, since Section 508 compliance requires they be accessible to anyone who needs to encounter them. It is also likely that it would be efficient to integrate this information with other systems. Finally, manual processes also leave room for human-based errors, which is one of the primary reasons for bad historical data residing in current infrastructure.

PDF offers solutions for each of these challenges, as we’ll look at later. Now that we’ve identified an outdated process though, how should you go about replacing it?


When replacing an existing system, government agencies need to focus on how they can best serve their citizens. Creating an improved repeatable and reliable process means understanding the wants and needs of your citizens and applying modern technologies to assist. When forming these processes, agencies need to consider and take into account the perspectives of their citizens and employees.

The first processes that should be modernized and digitized, are those that are the most expensive and labor intensive. This is not to replace government employees with an automated system, in fact it is to do quite the opposite. Offering government employees a faster, digital system creates more time, space and ability to tend to the needs of their citizens.

Something to also think about when creating a modernized environment is your agency’s archiving process. Historically, this process was completely paper-based and led to countless large boxes needing to be stored to comply with regulations. In such legacy systems, which some departments and agencies are still currently using, there is a critical need to scan all paper documents to be fit for purpose and meet guidelines that have been put in place for both security and future usage. However, simply scanning documents is by no means an ideal solution. One of the major challenges in document management is dealing with inaccessible data locked away in noneditable documents.

Your government agency might already have a digital document management system, but it could still be hard to find certain pieces of content or a certain type of file because your PDFs are “flat” and just seem like piles of data to the system.

This is because scanning a document containing printed text does not make it editable or searchable since it produces an image-only PDF. Because scanned printed documents are “flat,” you need to make sure the text they contain becomes machine-readable text, which can be searched, indexed or processed for later use.

However, optical character recognition (OCR) can help to unlock this data. iText’s pdfOCR add-on (which is included when you buy a commercial license for iText 7 Core) enables you to automate such an OCR process and integrate it into your archiving workflow by providing text recognition functionality, and conversion of scanned documents, PDFs and images into fully ISO-compliant PDF/A files.


PDF/A is a subset of the PDF standard which was specifically designed to serve an archiving and documentation platform, and since its introduction as an ISO standard in 2005 it has become the standard for long-term archiving and preservation of PDF electronic documents. PDF/A is different from PDF in the sense that in addition to platform independence, it enforces some extra restrictions to guarantee the document also remains consistent over longer periods of time. The Smithsonian, New York State Archives and Stanford University list it as a recommended format, and many other institutions worldwide recommend PDF/A for archiving, and some even make it a hard-line requirement. The proposed rule by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for Federal Records Management: Digitizing Permanent Records and Reviewing Records Schedules also calls for PDF/A to be used when digitizing paper-based documents.

PDF/A also allows for advanced features for digital long-term archiving and preservation such as the embedding of arbitrary file formats within a PDF, digital signatures and much more than we can reasonably talk about here. If you’d like to learn more though, we have a related blog post where you can get a free ebook that goes into much more detail about the PDF/A standard and creating PDF/A-compliant documents.


Security tends to be the main driver when government agencies upgrade a legacy system. In the modern era, citizens expect that the data and information held by many of these government agencies is kept classified. While security is a huge factor for agencies to move to digital, it can also be seen as a barrier for new implementations. How exactly can agencies make sure that data is safe and secure when it is kept in digital form?

Fortunately, PDF offers significant and unrivaled benefits for document security, with a raft of features which can be used depending on specific needs. We’ll summarize some key points below.


Encryption is a way to restrict access to unauthorized users by making the document inaccessible unless the intended recipients have the key/password to unlock the data. PDF offers both simple password encryption and certificate encryption, which uses the industry-accepted Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) to ensure the confidentiality, integrity and authenticity of documents.

PKI is a system based on a pair of cryptographic keys. One is called a "public key," which the holder of the key pair can and will distribute publicly. The other key is called the "private key," which as the name already implies, needs to be kept private. In simple terms what one key "encrypts" the other can "decrypt."

Aside from being more secure, the main benefit of using key pairs is the management aspect of it. Organizations can hand out keys to their employees to verify their identity and relation to the organization, while also giving them a tool to retract these keys when necessary, allowing the organization finer control over who sees what and when.


Digital signatures are a widely-adopted solution to replace wet ink signatures when using digital documents, especially useful for things like signing legally binding contracts or agreements. It is similar to having a public notary stamp in a document that ensures the signatures are legitimate and the document has not been modified. The digital signature essentially captures the intention of the individual to enter into the contract, and the digital signature is used to encrypt the information and confirm the validity of the signed document and the integrity of its content.

The main benefits of using digital signatures include automating and securing your digital document workflow, saving you time, money and headaches. There may be one or more signatures in a single PDF document, and in addition to a visible representation of the signature, you can include things like a signature photo and/or a signing certificate summary to allow all readers to clearly see the document has been signed.

The three main goals of digital signatures are to ensure the integrity and authenticity, and also nonrepudiation to assure that the signer can’t deny their signature. Digital signatures can be used to protect against tampering, proving the integrity of a document and ensuring that content is unaltered.


Redaction is helpful when you want to share the majority of a document’s content publicly but remove personal or classified information. This feature is comparable to the analog “black bar” method that was used in the days of the photocopy machine, however, simply adding a black bar over the text in a digital document leaves the text intact, making it easy for someone to access your sensitive data.

For PDF, iText offers pdfSweep, an iText 7 Core add-on that securely removes content you define as sensitive from the document making the redaction process similar (but better!) to the analog version. It intervenes as you edit a PDF document with iText 7's document stamping and watermarking tools. After adding a digital "blackout bar" over the sensitive text, image or part of an image, pdfSweep changes the document's rendering instructions, causing the hidden content of your digital document to become impossible to extract. This works for both text and images, affording you full information security.

As you can see, with PDF you have a number of security options based on your needs. You can set a password or set a key/certificate to encrypt a document. You can remove the sensitive data and then save or share broadly with redaction, or you can confirm that a document has not been tampered with by using digital signatures, while proving the signer is who you think they are.

There is far more we could go into on this subject; however, if you’d like to learn more, we’ve previously written on this site in more depth about how to secure your PDF documents.


The last piece we will touch on is accessibility. Many governmental organizations are required by law (e.g., Section 508 in the United States) to make their documents accessible to people with disabilities. PDF/UA (Universal Accessibility) was set up as a PDF standard to ensure that people who rely on assistive technology, such as screen readers, screen magnifiers, joysticks and other assistive technologies can still be able to access and consume the content of the PDF file. It can help assistive technologies convert PDF text data to braille writing or to explain to users what a certain image depicts if they can’t actually see the image.

iText 7 Core can let you add the right structural elements to your PDFs to achieve this type of compliance and expand the reach of information to people who are regularly underserved in this area. In addition, our collaborative, data-driven, template-based PDF generation solution iText DITO helps to achieve PDF/UA compliance with built-in checks to ensure you include the necessary information and elements required by assistive technologies.


Let’s summarize our four key points from this article:

  1. Make sure your modernized systems and processes are not just integrated, secure and efficient, but also compliant with regulations. 
  2. Make sure to create repeatable processes which are not only more cost-effective and efficient, but able to share and access data in documents easily. When it comes to long-term archive document storage requirements, PDF/A is the industry-standard solution. 
  3. PDF offers unmatched capabilities for document security in many situations, with encryption, digital signatures, secure content redaction and more. 
  4. PDF/UA was specifically developed to ensure people who rely on assistive technologies are fully able to access and consume PDF content, and PDF/UA documents are compliant with regulations such as Section 508 and the Americans With Disabilities Act. 

Naturally, all the PDF capabilities we’ve covered in this article can be achieved using iText technology. iText lies at the heart of many systems that produce and process PDFs for everyday uses, whether you’re talking online banking statements or airline boarding passes, and iText’s reputation for simplicity, power and scalability means it’s seen as “the developer’s choice.” That’s not to say only developers benefit from what iText offers though, as in addition to the iText 7 Core PDF library and it’s suite of add-ons, we also develop iText DITO, our collaborative, data-driven and template-based PDF generator, and iText pdf2Data, a solution to intelligently recognize and extract data from documents.