Monthly Archives: December 2014

The problematic Paperwork Reduction Act

The Paperwork Reduction Act (1980,1995) and the Government Paperwork Elimination Act (1998) together suggest that the government wants to move away from burdensome, paper-only interactions with the public toward a 21st century approach that takes advantage of the online world. The Paperwork Elimination Act (GPEA) mandates that government agencies treat electronically submitted information the same as a paper version – even to the extent of recognizing electronic signatures – so that individuals can transact with the government electronically. The Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) is intended to reduce the burden on the public resulting from information collections. Simply put, agencies should not require unnecessary information from the public and should make the best use of the information it has collected.

These goals are the right ones. As someone who has applied for visas for foreign countries and had to provide odd pieces of information that were clearly irrelevant, I am happy that the US has a mechanism to avoid such a thing. Unfortunately, the details of the legislation and its implementation are interfering with the goal, despite what are clearly the best intentions of all concerned.

One problem is process-related. The PRA sets up a process for both new forms and changes to existing forms that requires a 60-day public comment period followed by a second 30-day public comment period once feedback from the initial comment period has been incorporated. The form must then be approved by the chronically understaffed Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) at OMB. With the time required for preparation of the documents OIRA requires, the process can take 1 – 2 years for a change to an existing form.

The result is that agencies are discouraged from making improvements to their forms. Planning within agencies centers around how to avoid making changes that will trigger a PRA review. In an era when tech-savvy companies make continuous improvements to their user interactions, often testing two versions of the user interface at the same time (called A-B testing), this process interferes with the government’s ability to reduce burden and improve the public’s experience when transacting with the government.

A second issue is the existence of loopholes in the legislation. Government agencies are instructed to accept electronic signatures “where practicable.” In many cases the Department of Justice believes that such signatures are not “practicable” and agencies must require “wet” signatures even if a form is submitted electronically.

Perhaps the biggest issue, though, is the equating of paper and electronic versions of forms. OIRA requires parity between forms that are available both electronically and in print. This means that many of the features of electronic customer interaction are not allowed, since they would create a disparity between the channels. For example, online forms typically “validate” information as it is entered, flagging errors in the user’s input. Since paper allows the user to write anything they want, agencies are not allowed to stop an applicant from electronically submitting information that is clearly wrong. This denies agencies and the public one of the greatest benefits of electronic interactions.

There is a more subtle and insidious problem with this requirement. Electronic applications are generally – outside of the government – interactive; that is, as the user enters information the computer responds by providing related information. For example, once the applicant has been identified, the system can look up information it already has on the applicant and provide it as a “default” to reduce the burden on the applicant. But this would diverge from what is available on a paper application.

As a result the government’s electronic applications are static; viewed as just an equivalent of the paper application. As with paper, the applicant is expected to fill out information on a static page and submit it before the government can provide any help. The paperwork burden on the public is not reduced and the agency receives bad data, which makes its processing less efficient.

The PRA requires that an agency “to the maximum extent practicable, uses information technology to reduce burden and improve data quality, agency efficiency and responsiveness to the public.” The Open Government Directive further requires that OIRA review the PRA for impediments to the use of new technologies. In my view, that means that we cannot treat electronic forms as if they were paper forms, but rather must take advantage of all the advantages electronic interaction allows. Doing so would realize the spirit of the PRA and GPEA better than today’s process.