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Doing Away with Government Forms

Limiting the amount of paperwork residents have to fill out could make for easier, more efficient service.

Few would consider forms a particularly exciting area of opportunity for government innovation. And yet, here’s a solution that would probably spark the interest of anyone who’s ever waited in line at the DMV: Let’s get rid of them.

Recently, many governments have made efforts to redesign their forms in order to make them less time-consuming and confusing, and more likely to elicit honest responses from residents. Washington, D.C., for example, this summer hosted a “Form-a-Palooza,” an event that invited residents to collaborate on projects like making limited-purpose driver’s license forms easier for non-English speakers. New Mexico redesigned its unemployment insurance application process to include behavioral nudges that encourage residents to report their unemployment status and work search activities more honestly. And Indianapolis is broadly re-engineering its forms as part of a Web redesign.
However, perhaps these types of initiatives are asking the wrong question: Maybe we should not be asking how we can make forms better, easier, even more consolidated, but rather if we need forms at all.

Estonia — known as one of the most tech-savvy public administrations in the world — has moved toward a form-free system. The government operates under an “ask once, use twice” model, meaning that the government can only ask a resident for a particular piece of information once, but must use that information for at least two services. And almost every government service, ranging from filing taxes to voting, is available online. This means that if you input information for one service — for instance, submitting your address in order to apply for a license — applying for another requiring the same data — like registering to vote — is only a click away.

A number of American cities have taken steps in this direction, attempting to reuse resident data to limit the amount of required paperwork. For example, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and many others have allowed residents to complete their voter registration at the same time they renew their driver’s license without filling out a separate form.

It seems, though, that governments could take these measures one step further. Cities, states and the federal government possess immense amounts of resident data; why should they not share this data across agencies and with each other in order to solve problems for citizens before they even ask? When low-income parents submit income, family size and other information to apply for reduced-fare transit, why should the state not automatically enroll them in earned-income tax credits? Of course, residents should maintain the ability to opt out of municipal services, but automatic enrollment could help those who do not know about such services or find the application process too complicated.
And as governments become increasingly connected with the private sector, opportunities to use existing resident data to offer services will become more and more ubiquitous. For example, under the current unemployment insurance process, recipients must document their work search activities on a weekly basis. However, if governments partnered with companies to access their human resources data, they could automatically verify work search activities and continue to provide insurance without time-consuming paperwork for claimants.

Reusing resident data where possible could greatly reduce the burdens of applying for many services and free up municipal workers to manage tasks more complicated than processing paperwork. This means shorter lines at the DMV and more residents receiving the benefits they need. That’s something to get excited about. 

Chris Bousquet, a research assistant/writer at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School, co-authored this column.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: the New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America, and The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance.
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