Autopens have been used for decades by presidents of both parties, and they continue to run throughout government even in the digital age.

Manuel Balce Ceneta • Associated Press file,

Digital age can't shake government's use of the autopen

  • Article by: Lisa Rein
  • Washington Post
  • April 12, 2014 - 8:28 PM

Way back in the Franklin Roosevelt administration, even before there were ballpoint pens, the federal government embraced a radical new technology — a device that reproduced the signatures of time-starved senior leaders and presidents.

The autopen would became a perk of power, proof that the signer’s name could greenlight projects, disburse federal money, even launch a Navy ship or two. It was the killer app of 1937.

But what once was evidence of government’s willingness to leap into the future has become a sign of its addiction to old ways of doing business, especially when symbols of command and authority are at stake.

No one likes to talk about it, but the device long ago dubbed the ‘Robot Pen’ is still rumbling in executive offices in Washington and other outposts of federal power. Generals and admirals use them. Cabinet secretaries can’t quite forsake them. Even President Obama — he of the presidential BlackBerry and massive Twitter following — has signed three laws with his.

Daniel Tangherlini, who as head of the General Services Administration has sought to modernize the government, couldn’t bring himself to part with all three of the autopens his predecessor left behind. He dumped two but keeps one around for what he calls ceremonial emergencies, even as he labels its staying power “an allegory for unreformed business practices.”

“When you have critical business processes that rely on technology that was modern in 1937, you have to ask yourself — are you really embracing the digital age?”

The autopen’s convenience

There are thousands of autopens, the size of large printers, tucked away in back offices across the government, from the Social Security Administration to the Air Force to most Cabinet agencies. They look a bit like large printers with a mechanical arm that accordions out, grasping an upright pen above a flat writing surface. With a rumble, a motor powers the arm, in turn manipulating the pen, applying ink to paper in the pattern of the programmed signature.

At times, the pen answers the call of protocol, standing in for busy military commanders. In a pinch, it signs for civilian leaders who are out of town. But far more often, it completes routine paperwork that could be done digitally: performance reviews of federal employees, checks to vendors for small jobs, meeting invitations from regulators to the businesses they oversee.

Its endurance may reflect the tendency in government to rely on important people to make things happen — on paper. It can be habit-forming.

“Once they find their way into a federal office,” said Bob Olding, president of Rockville, Md.-based DAMILIC, one of the country’s two autopen manufacturers, “the pens become very convenient.”

They’re also helpful at cementing status. “Some of the most important and influential people in government use these machines,” Olding said.

There’s a cost to operating the machines. Autopenned documents have to be scanned into e-mail, faxed or sent by interoffice mail or post.

“It does stand out as a funny leftover in the large scheme of things,” said Elaine Kamarck, who helped run Vice President Al Gore’s Reinventing Government initiative in the 1990s.

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