How to understand and calculate government form burden

Posted on December 18, 2023

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Most people interact with your government through forms. Sometimes a form is short and simple. Some forms can feel long, complex, and stressful.

A lot of time is spent filling out forms and processing them. The main reasons forms take a long time to complete are figuring out what questions are asking for and tracking down information. One of the main reasons for long processing times is fixing missing or incorrect information.

By understanding and considering the administrative burden of your questions, you can find ways to save everyone time.

This post is a summary of what we learned from Suffolk University Law School’s presentation at FormFest 2023. Missed it? Here are videos of the presentations and keynotes.

Understand the burden

To start to understand the burden of a form, it’s helpful to think about the types of answers you are asking for and the types of burden they require.

Types of answers

There are 4 main types of answers to a question on a form:

  1. Stuff you know off the top of your head (example: your birthday)
  2. Things you have access to, but you need to find it (example: last year’s income)
  3. Something you need to get from someone else (example: your ex-husband’s income)
  4. A narrative about something or questions that require you to weigh complex options (example: describe the incident or if you want a jury trial)

Each of these kinds of questions has a different level of burden on the person filling out the form.

Types of burden

  • Time it takes to learn about what you need to do
  • Time it takes to complete the form
  • Triggers and psychological burden

Some burden is unavoidable. It’s important to be aware of different types of burden and evaluate if they are appropriate in the context of the service.

Calculate the burden

Suffolk University Law School’s Legal Innovation and Technology Lab have created Rate My PDF. This free tool lets you upload a PDF or Word document and gives it a score based on things like:

  • Readability
  • Length and number of fields
  • Sentence structure
  • Density of fields on the page

It also tells you how to make it simpler, more accessible, and easier to use.

Reduce the burden

Here are some ways to reduce the burden of your form.

Avoid complex open ended questions

Break up with prompts asking for the specific things you need to know. Instead of asking them to generally describe their project, just ask them about the things that impact how you process the request.

Set people up for success

Make sure that people can:

  • Comprehend your prompts and instructions
  • Accurately provide the requested information
  • Provide a complete response

If they can’t, use plain language to reword and clarify the questions and how-to language. Sometimes it helps to have helper text tied to a specific question. It can also be helpful to let people know if there is information they need to gather before they start filling it out.

Final thoughts

Forms are used every day. They are opportunities to:

  • Connect people to government services
  • Collect valuable and useful public feedback
  • Build trust and confidence in your organization

Every day is a great day to make a form better.

Learn more

Sources and acknowledgements

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