Rewriting forms: How the public is hacking Washington D.C.’s paperwork

Opinion: Filling out forms is tedious — but there’s light ahead

This article was written by Karissa Minnich, Senior Operations Analyst, The Lab @ DC, Office of the City Administrator, District of Columbia Government. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.

Think of the last government form you filled out.

Maybe you were renewing your driver’s license or enrolling your kids in school. Would you describe the experience as pleasant? Clear? Inviting? None of the above? For most, forms feel like a tedious barrier. They’re cumbersome and confusing.

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But difficult forms aren’t just bad design. They’re an important public service problem that your jurisdiction should address. A form can build trust in government or tear it down. A form can provide access to services or deny it. A form can respect residents or dehumanise them.

Reforming forms

I’ve had the privilege of leading Mayor of Washington, DC Muriel Bowser’s charge to put our residents at the centre of Washington, DC’s forms. In 2017, we launched Form-a-Palooza – an initiative and a day-long public event to overhaul our city’s paper forms.

The idea was simple. Who better to design for our residents, then the residents themselves? We asked them, “which DC government forms aren’t working for you?” At the top of their list: the basic business license, the school enrolment packet, the food truck health certificate application, and a handful of others.

We brought together residents, our government colleagues, and experts in user-centred design to systematically improve forms through guided facilitation. Experts in plain language and behavioural insights provided guideposts as residents prototyped in small groups and government staff offered content expertise. We left the day with robust user input and several prototypes to inform the final version of each form.

Putting values first

In the weeks that followed, government staff refined the resident-driven redesigns. Residents helped us by user testing the forms to ensure they worked as intended and to identify where they didn’t.

Sometimes, getting rid of a form entirely is the best solution

We took clipboards with the new driver’s license application to the DMV waiting area and asked residents to test it out. We held conversations with building expeditors on the certificate of occupancy application. We stationed outside elementary schools at pick-up times to have parents provide input on the school enrolment form. And when the forms were finally ready for public use, we invited residents back to see the new versions and to celebrate their work.

While we originally set out to make forms easier to use and eliminate errors, we quickly learned something more profound. Forms are not just an entry point to government services, they are hundreds of thousands of points in which we broadcast our values to residents. Here are just a few of those values that Mayor Bowser prioritised.

We value your time: Sometimes, getting rid of a form entirely is the best solution. Before our revision of the DC Public School enrolment packet, parents told us they had to use three different forms to request dietary accommodations for their student – the Fluid Milk Substitution Form, the Medical Statement for Dietary Accommodations, and the Philosophical/Religious Dietary Restrictions Form. This was cumbersome and confusing. Now there’s just one form. Parents don’t have to hunt for the correct one and they can relax knowing that their student’s complete dietary plan is recorded in a single place.

We value your specific needs: The process of submitting forms can be a burden in itself. Take the application for a reserved residential parking space for those with a physical disability. Residents told us that the old form required them to go to their doctor for a physical exam and signature, then to the Department of Motor Vehicle for a disability parking placard, then to a notary to stamp their application, and then, finally, to the Department of Transportation to submit the application.

Now remember, this is a form specifically for applicants who, by definition, have limited mobility. Think about how this painted residents’ feelings about their government. By eliminating the notarisation requirement and allowing applications to be e-mailed, the new form cut the number of stops in half.

We value and honour your identity: When we worked on the request form for disability support services local community advocates and residents offered the best guidance on how to refer to applicants with respect. Instead of “disabled person,” use “person with a disability.” When it came to gender, our non-binary residents told us they had no space to acknowledge who they were and how we could serve them.

Residents helped us realise that we didn’t need to be restrictive in offering only female or male. As we continue to revise our city’s forms, we add a non-binary checkbox so residents feel seen.

DC’s process is both broadly replicable and adaptable to other specific contexts and resident needs. Every government has forms and residents who struggle with them. And DC wants you to join the effort! You can see the 30+ transformations our city has completed as well as worksheets to guide you through form revision at formapalooza.

Remaking your jurisdiction’s forms doesn’t require passing legislation, approving large project budgets, or hiring additional staff. Reform is possible. You just have to work with your residents. — Karissa Minnich

(Photo credit: Unsplash)


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