Making City Bureaucracy Less Bureaucratic With Better Forms

An annual event in D.C. for "form nerds."

An annual event in D.C. for "form nerds." David Ris


Connecting state and local government leaders

In Washington, D.C., the annual “Form-a-palooza” event confronts the confusion of government documents.

Frustration with confounding government forms is a near universal experience. But in Washington, D.C., the city government is determined to make that experience more intuitive and less of an annoyance.

The main method for achieving that goal is through the city’s annual “Form-a-palooza” event, run by The Lab @ DC, a department in the Office of Budget and Performance Management that collaborates with city agencies on design projects. Each year, the agency brings together government employees, designers, and city residents to make improvements to the city’s many forms.

“I’ve become such a form nerd,” joked Karissa Minnich, a senior operations analyst with The Lab. “Forms are so important. They’re often your first interaction with government when you want to start a business, enroll in school, do anything,” she explained. “If they’re poorly designed and have confusing language, they become a barrier to service.”

Minnich isn’t the only form nerd in attendance at the day long event, which is open to the public. Greg Jordan-Detamore is a city resident who has been involved with Form-a-palooza for the past two years. “I was really excited to work on paper forms,” he said. “As important as it is to have digital options, paper presents an opportunity for immediate improvement. It’s much quicker to fix a paper form than it is to redo an entire city government website.”

There are hundreds of paper forms ripe for redesign, but the event provides participants with five to six predetermined options. The Lab identifies which forms get the Form-a-palooza treatment each spring, when they put out a call to the community asking for nominations, as well as getting feedback from inside government. “We ask the front line staff who interact with constituents on a regular basis which forms people struggle with the most,” Minnich said.

Once they have the long list, they eliminate obscure forms, like boat licenses, that don’t get filled out by very many people. Frequently used forms rise to the top, because The Lab hopes that the event can touch the broadest possible range of constituents. Minnich said this means considering the user community of each form to note which affect business owners, parents of school age children, and renters, for example.

After they have identified the targeted forms, The Lab starts recruitment for their redesigners. Some people arrive from general blasts put out by the Mayor’s Office of Community Relations and Advisory Neighborhood Councils, while others are targeted because they are potential users of the form. When Form-a-palooza took on a redesign of the D.C. school enrollment packet, for example, email announcements went out through local parent listservs and parent-teacher associations.

The participants work collaboratively to redesign the forms. Credit: David Ris.

On the day of the event, attendees sort themselves into teams of four where they focus on a single form. The Lab brings in experts in plain language, behavioral science, and graphic design to provide everyone with skills they can use throughout the day, and then begins the form audit. “The form audit is a critical start to the day,” Minnich explained. “We tell everyone to take a red pen to the form line by line to note places of confusion. That could be unfamiliar words, acronyms with no explanation, or instructions that don’t make sense.”

Then the redesigners begin a prototyping process where they are encouraged to think about the end users. When Form-a-palooza took on the comprehensive school enrollment packet, which includes things like health certifications and school meal elections, redesigners had to ask themselves questions about parents. Are they filling this out at their kitchen table? Do they have a five-year-old distracting them? Do they need to find their child’s birth certificate? Does finding that document require a trip to the basement? Will the form still make sense if they get interrupted multiple times?

Participants also have to understand common barriers to completing forms, so the government agencies who own the forms are also in the room to answer questions about why certain questions appear and how those might be reworded. Last year’s event dealt with the food truck health license application process, which previously took weeks to complete because submitted forms were often missing required information and supporting documents. The redesign process incorporated a checklist to ensure that applicants included all the right documentation, a simple solution that took the application process down to about an hour from start to finish.

“It’s not about making the form look pretty, it’s about making it functional,” Minnich explained. “To do that, we need to understand what the pieces are before we rebuild.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser stops by Form-a-palooza to see the progress. Credit: David Ris.

Participants don’t have finished versions of the new forms at the end of the day, but the prototypes are taken by The Lab for an eight week process where they work with agencies to do user testing and finalize the drafts.

The Lab is already planning for the 2019 iteration of Form-a-palooza, and may focus on revising some of the over 25 homeowner assistance programs in the city that provide services like down payment help, accessibility upgrades, grants for exterior upkeep in historic districts, and heating bill assistance for low-income residents. “We’re thinking holistically about what residents want to do, not just the forms they need to fill out,” Minnich said. “When residents get to engage in a hands-on approach where they collaboratively solve a problem with the government, we get a better sense of that.”

Jordan-Detamore says being one of those participants is an empowering feeling. “It’s exciting to have the chance to make people’s experience with government less frustrating, and especially to know that we can improve people’s lives without any complicated technical tools.”

Minnich says future evolutions of the event will look slightly different. “We’re trying out a new model where instead of one long day, we’ll do a series of smaller ones to engage with a greater coalition of residents,” she said. Hosting more frequent events would also allow The Lab to keep up with rising demand from other city agencies, something Minnich is looking forward to. “Agencies keep calling us saying, ‘I have this document, can you Form-a-palooza it?’ Now we can say yes more often.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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