How to Fix (the implementation of) the Paperwork Reduction Act

Or: The Burn Pit: Why we shouldn’t burn it down and what we should do instead

You may wonder why so many federal government services are clunky and confusing —so much so that some people feel like they need to hire a lawyer to help navigate the service successfully. It can feel like no one has ever conducted any usability testing at all on government services before they went live. It may also feel like a form hasn’t been simplified or improved in years. These things, unfortunately, are often true.

But why would any service not go through the most simple and important foundational process to make sure that a service is useful? Because there’s an old myth that “user research is illegal” in the Federal government. And forms typically aren’t simplified or improved because the process to make those improvements is extraordinarily confusing and time-consuming. I once saw a public servant try to make a form for Veterans more simple by having only relevant portions of a form visible a la Turbotax (Don’t have a TBI? Then let’s not ask the date when you got a TBI!) only to be told by a well-meaning attorney that if the agency didn’t show every Veteran every question, even if it was irrelevant and confusing, there was no way to get a form approved.

There are barriers to a number of critical advancements that would make services easier to use and more successful, and they’re all tied to an obscure law called the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA).

So the PRA is bad?

Not exactly. From a longer explainer:

The Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 (PRA) … is a law designed to “maximize the practical utility of and public benefit from information collected by or for the Federal Government,” specifically to:

1) Reduce burden on the public and prevent the Federal government from collecting redundant information or information that they don’t actually need to provide a service,

2) Make sure that the way the Federal government is collecting information to make policy is designed so that the resulting information can be used to produce meaningful, accurate statistics (think census), and,

3) Give the public a chance to weigh in on how the government is collecting information.

TL;DR PRA = The federal government can’t make you fill out bad forms all willy nilly, and you get to weigh in.

In other words, the PRA is actually awesome. It could make sure that when a student applies for Federal student aid, forms aren’t so hard to complete that they need help to finish. It could help make sure the information from those forms is collected in a way that they’re actually useful in shaping policy to serve those students. It can make it possible for student advocates to fight back if invasive, unnecessary questions are added to the forms.

Screen capture of C-SPAN’s video of the PRA signing ceremony

What could we do to fix the problems?

Option 1: Repeal or amend the Paperwork Reduction Act

Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 aged sign
Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 aged sign
In my search for what went wrong with the PRA, I found the signing ceremony sign. CC0 by me

Some of my fellow government-service-obsessed friends would like to repeal or change the PRA in order to make it possible to fix more government services. I understand the intent, but I respectfully disagree. As outlined above, the Paperwork Reduction Act is actually awesome (if it’s well-implemented).

I will never forget watching a senior engineer working on their first project in government and hearing them say, essentially “let’s just add a bunch of questions that would produce interesting data!” My librarian friends who sit next to patrons and painstakingly help them fill out forms flashed before my eyes. For the love of librarians and those they serve (among others!) let’s not repeal the PRA.

Option 2: Choose an OIRA administrator who understands how form design and user research is foundational to services working properly

If this was your instinct, congratulations! President Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, had the same idea when he nominated the co-author of Nudge, Cass Sunstein, to be the OIRA administrator in 2009. Sadly, while Sunstein is hailed as a pioneer of designing and researching choices to improve American life, that expertise and focus did not fix the implementation of the PRA.

My proposal to improve the implementation of the Paperwork Reduction Act: Set it up to succeed

Option 3: Change the structure of, and better resource, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs so that it can be successful.

By far, the most effective way to improve government is to set it up to succeed. Give teams the mission, resources and support to do important work.

The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) is the team in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the Executive Office of the President that reviews and approves every single Federal form and regulation. OIRA is full of smart, dedicated lawyers and economists… and zero designers. No form designers, information designers, content designers, UX designers, or otherwise. None.

A typical OIRA “desk officer” (person who works on the regulations and forms for a particular agency or portfolio) spends about 75 percent of their time on regulations and 25 percent on forms. They are typically passionate about regulations being well-designed and implemented, and are willing to deal with the forms because it means they get to work on the other stuff.

OIRA desk officers have told me over the years that the PRA process for forms is extremely annoying to work on, because well-meaning agencies submit lengthy and confusing paperwork for things that sometimes don’t even need review and approval. Memos go back and forth between agencies for months or years. The desk officers feel blamed for why the PRA is a notorious blocker for services that are well-designed. Some say it’s a culture problem at the agencies where General Counsel offices and PRA officers (agency staff who prepare the memos that go back and forth) are incentivized to get everything reviewed by OMB even if it doesn’t need approval “to avoid risk” even though it can mean a service, or an improvement of a service, is stuck in limbo and the “risk” is actually shifted to a Veteran not getting the service they need.

The Administrator of OIRA should launch two teams: Regulatory Affairs and Information Affairs. People who are passionate about regulations can serve on the Regulatory Affairs team, and specialize in applying the best research and best practices on effective regulations. A sister team, Information Affairs, can focus on implementing the PRA.

Launch an Information Affairs team

The Information Affairs team should be the home-base for expertise, training, and constant improvement of how the Federal government collects information and implements the PRA. They could be the team that works with the VA to streamline and simplify research and forms, and to ensure that things like improvements to a form that was supposed to “ascertain and monitor the health effects of the exposure of members of the Armed Forces to toxic airborne chemicals and fumes caused by open burn pits” didn’t expire three years ago and still hasn’t been approved.

They could be the team that works with the IRS to give Veterans (and other beneficiaries of means-tested benefits) the choice to import their own financial data rather than starting from scratch to, say, apply for health care benefits.

The Information Affairs team could be staffed through OMB-based experts in form design (For example, from OIRA and USDS), and augmented with information designers detailed from agencies (for example, from 18F) and through prestigious academic rotations from universities that specialize in service design. The Information affairs office could even have a Chief Information Affairs Officer (CIAO) whose single goal is to reduce burden on the public by increasing utility of the existing information. That CIAO could be someone like Dana Chisnell, USDS Alumni, co-author of the literal handbook of usability, and titan of service design.

The Information and Regulatory Affairs teams could collaborate when regulations have information collections associated with them, or when they’re working with the same agency.

What needs to happen for this to come true?

Does a law need to get passed? A legal fight? A change to a regulation?

Nope! This is completely administrative, so OMB leadership with the OIRA Administrator could decide to make this happen today. There are no conflicts with the text of the PRA. There’s even precedent for this type of change. During the Obama Administration, there was a team in the White House called the Office of Science and Technology Policy that hosted a United States Chief Technology Officer and Office. I worked in that office, and we were called “Team CTO”. We had a sister office in the Office of Management and Budget that hosted the United States Federal Chief Information Officer and a team that was commonly referred to as “e-gov.”

A colleague and friend who worked there confessed to me one day that it was embarrassing to be called “e-gov” and that it was hard to be taken seriously in technical or government circles. But, he said, the law that gave OMB the authority to create the U.S. Federal CIO had named the office, and it had to be called “e-gov.” That didn’t sound right to me, so I looked up the law. Yes, it refers to the team as an “electronic government” office, but 1) it did not say it had to be called that, and 2) it already *wasn’t* being called that. It was being called “e-gov.” I encouraged him to work with his team to start referring to it as the “Office of the U.S. Federal CIO,” or OFCIO. It worked. While it says “electronic government” on some formal legal documents, no one has called it “e-gov” in years, and the team is better off for it, with a more clear name and an easier time recruiting.

Clear forms, fully resourced, can’t lose

The improvement of critical access to services and information should be set up to succeed. Whether it’s to disburse aid in the face of COVID-19, or to simplify the FAFSA, the government should take every step in its power to fix the (implementation of) the PRA.

America’s foremost technologist named after a Great Lake. Now @CodeforAmerica! Co-founder @techladymafia + @usds. Former @harvard @whitehouse @cfpb.

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