Origin of White Papers
In this article, we’ll look at the history
of the white paper, why it was so called, and how it has evolved over
Part of the confusion is that there are two types of white papers:
Government – This type of white paper is a format report that outlines a
policy, proposal or an issue that affects the general public. In some
countries, it is referred to as a ‘parliamentary paper’.
Technology – This second type of white paper is authored for software
companies, for example, when developing a new technology, positioning a
product in the marketplace, or when they wish to develop thought
How Did White Papers Become White?
One suggestion is that White Papers may have developed from so-called
“Blue Papers” in 19th century Britain; the report’s cover was blue.
These legislative documents were delivered by Government for discussion
However, if the material for a Blue Paper was too light or informal, it
would be published with white covers instead. In time, these were simply
referred to as White Papers.
The term has a slightly different meaning in the US, where government
white papers refer to Background Report.
In addition to white and blue papers, you can also find green papers.
These are most common in Great Britain, Ireland and the United States.
What is a green paper?
This is a specific type of government report that outlines a ‘potential’
line of action. For example, before the law is changed, the Government
might issue a green paper describing how the law will be changed, who
will be affected, and what one needs to know when it’s introduced.
European Commission Green Papers
When the European Commission publishes a green paper it is intended as a
‘discussion document’ to stimulate debate on a particular topic.
The purpose of a green paper is to encourage interested parties to
contribute to the dialogue and share their knowledge, insights or
Following this round of consultation, it may evolve into a formal white
paper where an official set of proposals are clarified.
Canada Green Paper
In Canada, a green paper is an official document sponsored by the Crown.
These are discussion documents issued by the government for public
debate, not official policy documents.
Famous White Papers
Before technology white papers became synonymous with marketing efforts,
certain government white papers became well known, such as:
Churchill White Paper 1922 – This clarified how Britain viewed the
Balfour Declaration, 1917. That Declaration announced the British intent
to aid the "establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish
McDonald White Paper of 1939 – This called for the creation of a unified
Palestinian State. It suggested that there would be limited Jewish
immigration and limited ability to buy land.
In Place of Strife – This White Paper was intended to abolish the Indian
Act in Canada and recognize First Nations as the same as other
minorities in Canada. Until 1969 they were a distinct group.
China’s White Paper against Taiwan – China’s release of a “White Paper”
threatening military force against Taiwan showed that China disdained
Clinton administration pleas to use “restraint” in cross-Straits
relations. Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said: “The White
Paper comments are unacceptable. And I think many of us are surprised by
the bluntness and inappropriateness of this particular challenge.”
It seems that white papers are a by-product of blue papers, which
ironically don’t exist anymore. They have first cousins in the Green
Paper; I've heard Grey papers mentioned but couldn’t find much
Drop me a line if you want to share anytime and I'll update the article.