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Transforming the Paperwork Reduction Act to tackle administrative burden
An overlooked and unloved piece of legislation is getting a second life
The Paperwork Reduction Act. Does it sound boring?
Is it boring?
Ok, also yes.
But the PRA also might be the best tool we have to systematically reduce administrative burden in federal programs, including core safety net programs like Medicaid to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Image from Health Affairs
It’s unlikely you heard about new federal guidance about how the PRA will be implemented. But these changes have the potential to enact big and lasting effects, forcing federal agencies to properly account for the costs imposed on the public, which often act as a barrier to public services.
A blog by Sabeel Rahman of the Office of Management and Budget explained the two goals of the new guidance:
Identifying administrative burdens. This memo calls on Federal agencies to further engage with the public to fully understand their experience when applying for or submitting information to a benefits program. The memo also directs agencies to consider how other burdens in the process impose time, financial, and psychological costs on people.
Reducing administrative burdens. The guidance also instructs agencies to consider policy, communication, technological, and design reforms that can make it easier for the public to access services.
This is not stuff that is going to generate a lot of headlines or credit. But along with previous OMB agency level guidance and an Executive Order last December, it represents an unprecedented commitment by the federal government to reduce administrative burden.
Take a moment and appreciate the idea that the machinery of government is being turned to direct attention to real problems that real people experience with government, and to find ways to fix those problems.
Thats a good thing! So what does the new guidance involve?
Giving teeth to the Paperwork Reduction Act
The PRA is not a terribly well-known, or well-loved piece of legislation. The original intent of the PRA was to “minimize the Federal paperwork burden for individuals, small businesses, State and local governments.” Thus, the new guidance could be seen as better fulfilling that original goals of the PRA, which .
We asked Bridget Dooling, Professor at George Washington University and former Deputy Chief of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA, the part of OMB that oversees the PRA) about it. She points out that the PRA performs a balancing act, seeking to limit the time people provide unnecessary information to the government, but via process that are often experienced as onerous for agencies. She notes:
the government, as a whole (and with no disrespect to any one part of it), might be inclined to ask for more information than it needs, and we need a way to protect people from the resultant and unnecessary burden.
In our book on administrative burdens we compared the PRA unfavorably with cost-benefit regulations that come with real teeth to protect businesses from regulations. By contrast, the PRA seemed mostly useful in providing estimates (not always accurately or consistently) of how much time people spent filling out forms, but not doing much to recognize other types of costs — for example, learning about public services, or pulling together documentation, or the stresses and hassles that come with paperwork. In short, even when they did estimate costs, they bore little relationship to the actual costs people experienced.
Nor has the PRA done much to reduce the burdens people encounter. Can the new guidance change things?
Cass Sunstein, former head of OIRA, thinks so:
Dooling is no less enthusiastic:
This memo is one of the most consequential policy changes that I've seen from the Biden administration yet. That might sound like hyperbole, but hear me out. The federal government asks the public to spend billions and billions of hours preparing and sending it information. Even marginal improvements to how this system works can improve lives in tangible ways. And making big changes can do even more.
So lets examine in more detail the key ways the new guidance will change the PRA.
Making burdens visible
Public organizations that implement federal policies, whether federal, state, local or tribal, to *fully* document the public’s experience and costs when navigating these programs.
Historically, the PRA has focused attention on how long it takes you to fill out a form. That time is part of what we would think of as a compliance cost. But it does not consider how long it takes you to collect documentation, another type of compliance cost, or learning and psychological costs. The new guidance fixes these shortcomings.
According to the guidance agencies must:
ensure that their narrative descriptions of the public’s beginning-to-end experience with the information collection activity accurately reflect its complexity and note, as necessary, burdens such as time spent gathering records and documentation needed to prove eligibility, travel time associated with developing and submitting the collection, or even time waiting to speak with agency personnel.
In other words, the PRA is no longer just about how long it takes to fill out forms.
Imagine if someone applies for disability benefits. How hard is it figure out the program’s eligibility rules? How long does it take to access necessary medical records or get necessary medical tests? Most people have health record information across multiple institutions, some of which will require they visit varying offices, fill out additional forms, and pay money to access those records. If they are required to document assets, how confusing and time consuming this process? Again, the memo is explicit that these types of costs must be considered:
This experience can include learning about program rules; receiving a notice in the mail; reading and understanding instructions; tracking down records and documents needed to prove eligibility; filling out any required forms; scheduling and responding to any required phone call, email, or in- person meeting; consulting with any third parties to help navigate program requirements; traveling to any in-person office visits; and waiting to speak with caseworkers or front- line service providers. Every step in the process represents a burden that could result in individuals or entities justifiably becoming too discouraged to complete the process and thus not receiving public benefits for which they are legally eligible.
Recognizing learning and psychological costs
Making burdens visible means giving attention to types of burdens that are less obvious, to costs that were previously overlooked. The old PRA guidance did not account for learning costs, such as the time and effort expended to figure out what a program does, as well as whether one might be eligible, as well as how to access and apply for a program. The new guidance tells agencies that they must
more fully account for learning costs, which include the time and effort expended by a respondent to discover and determine the applicability of an information collection to their particular circumstances, as well as any research necessary for the respondent to understand how to comply with any program participation requirements beyond reading a form’s instructions.
One of the most radical changes is that agencies must consider the psychological costs of these burdens. Specifically, agenices must
describe and discuss sources of psychological costs that certain information collections impose on individuals, such as the cognitive load, discomfort, stress, or anxiety a respondent may experience as a result of attempting to comply with a specific aspect of an information collection
Having the federal government acknowledge that the stress, frustration and even fear that people experience when confronted with administrative burdens is a *real cost* is one of the most significant changes in this new federal guidance. As we developed the administrative burden framework, the biggest gap between how government (and often research) thought about frictions, and people’s experience of burdens is the inattention to psychological costs.
This new guidance is a remarkable expansion in the recognition of the burdens government imposes on the public.
Listening to affected groups
A key part of the memo pushes federal agencies to simply listen more. This means consulting with staff (“front-line personnel and leaders from agencies’ regional offices, sub-agencies and programs with relevant expertise”) and members of the public (“program applicants and participants (prior, current, or potential), individuals with lived experience relevant to the information collection, front-line staff employed by state, territorial, tribal, and local governments, subject-matter experts, and advocacy groups”).
Encouraging user research
One reason the PRA is unloved is that it is often seen as a barrier to undertaking research, including research about how to reduce burdens! PRA requirements kick in when government engages with more than 10 people. The memo notes that many forms of research are not subject to the PRA:
For example, listening sessions with interested parties; asking non-standardized questions on a particular process, theme, or issue (without any specification of the information being sought); directly observing the experiences of program applicants and participants; and consulting with, in total, fewer than 10 persons are all forms of engagement with the public that would generally not be subject to the PRA.
Other types of research can be exempted from PRA requirements via a “generic clearance” including “customer service surveys, focus groups, semi- structured interviews, and pre-testing alternative versions of forms.”
For bureaucrats or outside researchers that are told it would be difficult to undertake research on an innovation that might make life easier on the public, the guidance gives them a license to say that OIRA disagrees.
Can the legal counsels in different agencies who kill a lot of research initiatives please take note?
Doing something about burdens
Part of what is compelling about the new guidance is that it is not just pushing agencies for better accounting of administrative burden. It also pushes them to do something about it. The guidance repackages and expands some earlier OMB guidance on how to reduce burdens and tells agencies that they should
use the ICR [information collection requests] process as a routine opportunity to identify both short-term and long-term initiatives to minimize burden on the public while ensuring the integrity and usefulness of the information collection.
Moreover agencies “should engage their general counsel to determine if every burden identified in the ICR is strictly necessary under the controlling statute or regulation.”
Agencies are told that OMB will assess how well they:
simplify the request for information, while ensuring the continued utility of the information they do collect
enhance communication, navigation, and outreach tools and processes to reduce learning costs to the public
improve information collection and submission processes to mitigate challenges that underserved and marginalized communities may disproportionately experience
use leading design practices to assess, evaluate, and then improve forms and information collection experiences
The memo doesn’t just tell agencies how to measure burdens, or even to reduce it, but promotes a series of tools and techniques which show agencies how to reduce burdens. Such changes are very much consistent and cross-referenced with other burden-reduction efforts, and with the idea that burdens reduction is part of Biden’s general goal to improve equity. The memo encourages agencies to be attentive to some groups experiencing disproportionate impact because, “for instance, housing insecurity, disability, lack of ready access to a computer, mobile phone, or internet connection, transportation challenges, or limited English proficiency.”
A new and improved PRA?
One thing to note here is the embedding of burden reduction efforts into existing government routines, such as information collection requests already mandated by the PRA, rather than creating entirely new routines. The Biden Customer Experience executive order took the same approach, telling agencies to tie burden reduction efforts with existing strategic planning and performance reporting routines. This is very smart for two reasons. First, behavior in public organizations are shaped by routines more than incentives. Second, it takes a long time for new routines to take hold and be viewed as credible. Capturing and expanding existing routines, as the new guidance does, increases the probability of success.
Much of the knock on the PRA is that is has been seen by agencies as red tape: OMB telling agencies what they can’t do, and requiring them to document their actions. One risk is that the new PRA will be seen as even more bureaucratic. But the intent of the new guidance is to convert the PRA from being a constraining to an enabling law, one that gives license to agencies to improve the lives of the public. In other words, this is not just a change in processes, but an attempt to change broader governmentwide cultural norms and practices about how it engages with the public.
These changes won’t just give people their time back. It may also make people *feel* differently about government. As Bridget Dooling, the former OIRA official and Professor notes:
Giving people their time back, treating them with respect along the way, and improving service delivery even has the potential to improve trust in government. Right now, these are exactly the kinds of investments we need to be making. So, I was thrilled to see the memo and can't wait to see how agency collections change as a result. I hope we will have a lot to study in the years to come.
If you are the type of in-the-weeds of government person who enjoyed this, chances are you will enjoy reading previous posts about the Biden administration’s efforts to reduce administrative burdens. Please subscribe if you have not already, and consider sharing.