One of the long-standing goals of electronic communications is finally putting an end to the paper trail in almost all transactions. Once considered unimaginably distant, the goal now is within sight. It is achievable, practical and even supported by federal law—the Government Paperwork Elimination Act of 1998. It requires federal agencies to maintain records digitally and give people and companies the option of exchanging forms and submitting information electronically, when practicable, “as a substitution for paper.”

For once, Congress was ahead of the learning curve. It specifically decreed that electronic records and signatures are to be given legal effect, and it ordered federal agencies to investigate and deploy a variety of electronic signature alternatives. But only now, in 2006, is the construction industry finally signing on to the concept.

Our risk-averse industry has, perhaps appropriately, held off making hasty moves to take processes fully digital. There were reservations about data security and the fact that most processes cannot be handled entirely digitally unless everyone in the process goes along. All it takes to derail the scheme is one code official who wants to caress a set of hand-signed plans.

Some sectors of the economy, particularly those like financial institutions with well organized regulations and standards, are well down the trail toward total electronic transactions and running like mad toward the white light of business salvation. Other, less standards-oriented sectors, like construction, mostly have been just plodding along.

But even construction now is getting a spring in its step, enabled by increasing use of secure document formats like PDFs that can carry embedded controls for viewing, forwarding and printing. These electronic guiding hands can even verify the integrity of documents or cause them to self-destruct.

These developments are opening the door to a new level of possibilities.. The entrepreneurs who recently launched an automated construction payment system called Textura have the right idea. They are marrying secure electronic documents and authentication to construction business processes to untangle the convoluted invoicing and payment system and create legally binding, automated systems that eliminate paper from end to end.

Innovations don’t have to be complex to be good. They just have to be useful. Architect John TeSelle’s little digital signature and seal plug-in can send plans flying through the Internet to pop out of distant reprographic shops or building code officials’ offices. But a signature is the symbol of a person and what they represent. As John Hancock quipped in 1776 as he signed the Declaration of Independence, “The British ministry can read that name without spectacles.” We think that electronic signatures will be even clearer than a “John Hancock.”