Durham, N.C., Wants the Best Local Gov Forms in the Nation

A mix of human-centered design and behavioral science aims to make municipal forms easier to complete and process. (Re)Form Durham pairs city staff with researchers from Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight.

by / November 7, 2018
Durham, N.C. Shutterstock

Durham, N.C., wants to have the best forms of any local government in the country.

To understand the significance of this, one must first be aware that there’s a prevailing sentiment among most folks in government that the forms constituents must often complete for services — for everything from access to public information to applications for business permits — have become convoluted as a result of bureaucracy. In all levels of government, experts point to forms that are unnecessarily long and difficult, both for those who must fill them out as well as for those who are later tasked with processing them.

As a result, there are an increasing number of government and government-adjacent stakeholders working to redesign forms with users in mind. Durham’s goal is to be among the best of them, and the city is working to accomplish this with a mix of human-centered design and behavioral science expertise. To incorporate the latter, civil servants in Durham have teamed up with experts from the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University.

The effort has been dubbed (Re)Form Durham, and it started with an event last month that brought together roughly 40 designers, public servants, residents and behavioral science experts to spend some time looking at existing forms and brainstorming ways to make them better.

“It’s kicking off with four forms,” said Ryan Smith, an innovation team project manager with Durham, “and our intention is moving forward to look at as many forms as possible, making them better for the end user.”

The first wave of forms includes those residents must use to make improvements to public parks, get copies of vital records, apply for small business certification programs and obtain yard waste collection services. At the recent event, attendees broke into small groups, in which they devised low-fidelity prototypes and concrete suggestions for improving the forms.

The next step will be working with the departments that handle the forms in order to incorporate suggestions from the event, followed by next evaluating whether the forms that result are better.

This has become a relatively standard set of moves for local and state governments looking to use human-centered design as a means of making forms better, perhaps deployed to greatest effect by the Detroit-based design studio, Civilla. Civilla recently worked to improve the single longest public benefits application in the nation, which belonged to the state of Michigan. Ultimately, the human-centered design work managed to reduce that form by 80 percent, simultaneously reducing the amount of time it took the government to process them.

Smith said that the event in Durham, with all the different perspectives it incorporated, already stands to yield results.

Joseph Sherlock, a behavioral fellow in residence from Duke’s Center for Advanced Hindsight, said there is much to be gained by also applying behavioral science methodology to this project. Many of the barriers faced by those who use forms are psychological, involving questions of perception and confusion. With behavioral science, Sherlock said, it is possible to identify such barriers and then use related literature to inform the work.

The proof, of course, eventually comes in later in the evaluation stage.

Zack Quaintance Staff Writer

Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.